Brian Burke remembers it like it was yesterday.
It was his first week on the job in 1993 as an executive at the NHL’s head office in New York. Burke entered the men’s washroom to find first-year commissioner Gary Bettman picking up scraps of paper from a messy floor.
When Burke reminded Bettman that a maintenance person would be in later in the day to clean up, Bettman had no interest in leaving the mess for someone else.
“I tell Gary ‘We pay someone to do this’,” Burke recalled Thursday.
“He responds angrily, ‘And when do they start work?’ I say, I don’t know – 6 p.m.’ He responds, ‘And until then, every guest, every sponsor, every vendor, every owner, and any and all club personnel will use this restroom. And it WILL be neat and clean.”
The incident was symbolic of how Bettman would run his league, carefully watching over every little detail of its operation.
“He’s as tough as nails,” Burke, now the GM of the Anaheim Ducks, said of his former boss.
Fifteen years ago Friday, Bettman took the helm at the NHL. Back then, few Canadians had ever heard of the 40-year-old lawyer from Queen’s, N.Y.
Did he ever think he’d be at it this long?
“I’ve never, in anything I’ve ever done, thought in terms of time frames,” Bettman told The Canadian Press on Thursday. “I think more in terms of satisfaction, in terms of passion, in terms of interest.
“And as long as all of those criteria are being met, then I’m delighted to continue to do what I’m doing.”
A lot has happened since Feb. 1, 1993 – that first day on the job. The league has gone from 21 to 30 teams and expanded into markets people never thought a puck would ever be dropped. Revenues and franchise values have also markedly grown, but so have player salaries. And the league has had two lockouts.
“Fifteen years, lots of ups and downs,” Flyers chairman Ed Snider told the Philadelphia Daily News in Thursday’s edition. “But we are better today. I don’t have any question about that.”
Added Snider: “I think Gary is the best hire we ever made. The guy is a dynamo.”
But he has attracted his fair share of criticism over the years. The sharpest attacks are most often based on his struggles to get better TV deals in the U.S., particularly the post-lockout decision to yank the NHL off global kingpin ESPN in favour of the lesser-known Versus, a station some Americans still have a hard time finding on their dial.
There are websites dedicated to the wrath some fans have for the 55-year-old. Some Canadians are angry that the NHL left Winnipeg and Quebec City under his watch. Others are frustrated they can’t afford ticket prices. The harshest sentiment is from those who wonder how much passion he really has for the game – because he’s not a “hockey guy.”
“Gary is as passionate and knowledgeable about the game on the ice as anyone in the league,” NHL deputy commissioner Bill Daly told The Canadian Press. “During his 15 years as commissioner, he has become an expert on the dynamics of the game, what motivates players and coaches, and what entertains fans.
“And that’s his primary motivation – to make the game as competitive and entertaining for the fans as possible.”
Bettman was a New York lawyer arriving on the job from the NBA’s executive offices in 1993. And from the get-go, he has had to fight that stigma in Canada.
“Let’s not confuse what some in the media portray as our fans’ psyche and what our fans’ psyche is,” Bettman said. “I meet with lots of our fans on a regular basis – in small groups, in big groups – and I’m very comfortable with the relationship that I have with our fans, particularly our Canadian fans.
“I know there are some in the media that would like to portray it differently, but there’s nothing that I can do about that,” added Bettman. “But it isn’t factual to equate the media’s portrayal of that with the experience that we’ve had with our fans directly.”
Burke got a first-hand look at the commissioner while working for him as the league’s senior vice-president and director of hockey operations in the 1990s.
“I think the world of Bettman,” he told The Canadian Press. “He is a genius. He is a brilliant guy who also has vision – that’s not always the case (with other leaders). He was a great boss and he’s a great friend.”
Bettman is reticent when asked to list his proudest accomplishments over the past 15 years. In fact, he was reluctant to even grant an interview on Thursday. He dreads these types of milestone stories, just as he did in 2003 when much was made of his 10 years at the helm.
“You know what, I don’t rank things like that,” Bettman said of his accomplishments. “There have been lots of things, big and small, that have been done to strengthen the game. We continue to play to record attendance, we have more exposure for the game than we’ve ever had before, and I think most people – particularly our fans – think the game on the ice is more entertaining on the ice than it’s been.
“And our franchises are stronger and more competitive then they’ve ever been. So my answer to the question is, I like the direction we’re heading – doesn’t mean there haven’t been bumps and there won’t be more bumps – but we’ve been consistently heading in the right direction.”
Under Bettman, total league revenues have grown from $400 million in 1993 to $2.4 billion at the end of last season. On the flip side, the players’ average salary has gone from $467,000 in ’93 to $1,708,607.
The most important indicator for his bosses – the owners – is that franchise values have steadily increased.
“I can tell you that the people he works for think he has done a great job,” Snider told the Philadelphia Daily News.
Bettman says his biggest regret is the lockout that wiped out the 2004-05 season.
“My cardinal principle, and it’s the same one I try to instil on this organization, is that you got to do what you think is right and you got to always take your best shot,” he said.
“My biggest regret is that we had to lose an entire season (2004-05) to get what we ultimately got and what we had to have (a salary cap). I wish it could’ve been done – and gotten to the same place – without the loss of the season and the couple of years leading up to the loss of the season which were difficult years for us. But it wasn’t in the cards and we had to see it through.”
Bettman has matched, in duration, John Ziegler’s 15-year reign as NHL president from 1977 to 1992. But he’s got a long way to go to reach Clarence Campbell’s 31 years from 1946 to 1977.
He was given a multi-year extension a few months after the lockout ended. He’s not planning on moving on anytime soon.
“You know what, as long as the criteria are in place that I mentioned before (satisfaction, passion, interest), and as long as the owners are satisfied with our relationship, then I’ll keep doing it,” said Bettman.
“Because guess what? This is the greatest job even on its worst days.”