Bettman’s reign equal parts incredible savvy and mind-boggling good luck

Gary Bettman has signed a contract extension with the NHL that will see him continue to be one of the most powerful men in the game through the 2021-22 season, which is coincidentally when the next CBA expires.

During one of the countless news conferences NHL commissioner Gary Bettman has held over the years, a reporter once suggested to Bettman that if a CEO of a major corporation had the same track record he did, that person would be shown the door. The NHL’s board of governors obviously doesn’t agree.

There is absolutely no doubt on this. Bettman signing a seven-year contract extension that will take him through the 2021-22 season and just past his 70th birthday is based entirely on merit. Regardless of what you think of Bettman, he has made his bosses very, very happy. And for the most part, very very rich, either in the present or when they sell and cash out. He has played a huge part in the NHL transforming itself from a ticket-driven business with about $400 million in yearly revenues to a $4 billion industry.

But there has to be a certain amount of pixie dust at work here, no? Take this past weekend for example. What started at the John Scott Debacle™ became the John Scott Miracle™ and saved the All-Star Game from embarrassment to being the most watched in years and undoubtedly, one that will go in the annals of league history. The NHL, its players and everyone involved came out looking spectacular. The same league that didn’t want anything to do with Scott when he was voted into the game according to the NHL’s own rules was being promoted by it after he was carried off the ice on his teammates’ shoulders as the most valuable player of the tournament.

And Bettman, as the face and leader of the league that created the debacle, is now more than thrilled to be associated with John Scott. The NHL’s own incompetence on the file created the perfect storm that made Scott a folk hero and transformed the game from the usual snore fest to a must-see event. That’s some kind of luck at work.

And what other commissioner could close a league down for a full season and see it come back stronger than ever? What league leader could have a guy like Jeff Vinik fall into his lap to transform the Tampa Bay Lightning from a dysfunctional sunbelt punchline into a model NHL franchise? (Vinik told me a story during the Stanley Cup final last year that over dinner with a friend one night, he decided to cure his mid-life crisis by buying a sports franchise and went on Google the next day to go about learning how to do it. And that coincided with the Lightning being for sale.)

Who could drag the Arizona (nee Phoenix) Coyotes through bankruptcy court and still find people willing to buy the team and a cash-strapped town continue to pour good public money down a sinkhole? In 2002, the owner of the Buffalo Sabres was led away in handcuffs and Bettman was able to find one billionaire to be a caretaker for a couple of years to keep the team in Buffalo, than another one to cement its future there. When the Atlanta Thrashers found themselves unable to continue, the league had a ready-made market in Winnipeg waiting to accept them.

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And every time something happens, Bettman seems to be the guy wearing the black hat. It’s not a role he seems to mind, nor does he appear to give much credence to what the man on the street thinks of him. He still smiles every year when he gives out the Stanley Cup to a cascade of boos. He is calculating, controlling and manipulative, characteristics that make him a villain to most fans and a hero to those who sign his paycheques.

Bettman outlasted one of the most militant union leaders in the history of sports and, for the most part, has gotten what he was looking for in every round of collective bargaining. It’s interesting to note that this contract expires about the same time the current collective bargaining agreement does. Even though the league and NHL Players’ Association have the option to opt out of the current deal after the 2019-20 season, it’s highly unlikely either will. Neither has exercised similar options in the past and, in fact, it wouldn’t be surprising to see both sides continue to extend the current deal on a year-to-year basis, which they are within their rights to do under the current agreement.

In the current process of expansion, Bettman and the league set a $2 million application fee that turned off at least two legitimate applicants, and now is taking its time on the file. Most observers predict it will ultimately result in another team being placed in the desert, while a market in Quebec that has done everything the NHL has asked will be told it is not their time. There will be the usual gnashing of teeth and allegations that Bettman is anti-Canadian, despite the league’s insistence on standing by several floundering Canadian franchises at the beginning of this century. Bettman will deflect the criticism with unflinching resolve and carry on. He’ll be just fine.

Gary Bettman will one day take his place in the Hockey Hall of Fame, which almost certainly rankles some fans to the point of distraction. And despite what many of those people think of him, he will belong there.