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David Stern: the basketball guy who had a huge impact on the NHL

Longtime NBA commissioner David Stern, who passed away Wednesday at 77, was never at the helm of the NHL, but it was his suggestion to the league that wound up altering its course over the past three decades.

In his excellent 2012 book, The Instigator: How Gary Bettman Remade the League and Changed the Game Forever, Jonathan Gatehouse talked to David Stern about what he and the NHL commissioner had in common. “Masochism,” Stern said at the time. “That’s our bond.”

But Stern and Bettman shared much more than their lofty positions as extremely well-paid sports executives who have run two of the big four professional sports leagues in North America and the challenges that go with it. When Stern died New Year’s Day at age 77, Bettman released a heartfelt statement on the man who had such an enormous impact on his life and career. “I am extremely saddened at the passing of my mentor and long-time friend David Stern,” Bettman said. “He was a man of great vision and energy who is responsible for the operational and business advancements that created the modern sports industry. David taught me how to be a commissioner and, more importantly, how to try to be a good person. David will be missed terribly, especially by his wife Dianne and his sons Andrew and Eric, all of whom have Shelli’s and my deepest condolences.”

In reality, without David Stern, there is probably no Gary Bettman running the NHL for the past 27 years. Bettman has garnered an enormous number of critics, but from a business and league-health standpoint, his tenure has been a resounding success. And almost every fingerprint Bettman has had on the league and the game, from his approach to collective bargaining to his ability to generate revenues, emerged from the lessons he learned from Stern. Their relationship goes back more than 40 years when Bettman and Bob Batterman, now one of the league’s top negotiators, were young lawyers at the firm of Proskauer, Rose, Goetz & Mendelsohn in New York, where Stern was a partner. That relationship led to Bettman following Stern to the National Basketball Association after the latter became commissioner of the league, which led to Stern recommending Bettman for the NHL job when it came open in 1992.

Back then, when Los Angeles Kings owner and future prison inmate Bruce McNall chaired the NHL’s Board of Governors, he travelled to New York and invited Stern to lunch with the intention of offering him the NHL job. As it turns out, McNall wasn’t even close to successful in his bid to lure Stern away from the NBA, but Stern did suggest McNall and the NHL speak with Bettman. So began a confluence of events that led to Bettman taking the league’s top job. When both men were running their leagues, rarely would a week go by when they would not at least talk to each other on the phone.

Like Stern, Bettman took over his league at a time when things were not looking particularly rosy. Stern took over the NBA in 1984, at a time when the league was so far down the food chain that its final was being televised on tape delay. Stern grew the league exponentially, imposed a salary cap to achieve cost certainty and allowed six franchises to move to other cities. Sound familiar? When Bettman took over the NHL, it was doing about $400 million in revenue. Almost three decades later, it’s almost at $5 billion. Bettman shut down the league for the 2004-05 season in an effort to impose a salary cap – having a palace coup that cost former NHL Players’ Association executive director Bob Goodenow his job was an unforeseen bonus – something that has given it cost certainty, sent franchise values skyrocketing and been an enormous win for the owners. For better or worse, the Sun Belt expansion and increased footprint in the United States is almost completely the work of Bettman and it has changed the complexion of the league. Before Bettman, would anyone have ever thought that a team from Dallas would play an outdoor game against a team from Nashville and attract more than 85,000 fans to the Cotton Bowl? Under Bettman’s watch, five NHL teams have relocated, the one notable exception being the Arizona Coyotes, a franchise Bettman has worked tirelessly to save and keep in the desert.

None of this, neither the good nor the bad, happens without Gary Bettman at the helm of the league. And Gary Bettman almost certainly does not end up there if not for David Stern. The latter ran his league for 30 years, while Bettman will celebrate 27 years on the job in less than a month, largely because they have done such a good job of keeping their employers extremely happy. Both men will go down in history as some of the most influential people ever in their sports.

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