Evaluating Gary Bettman's Volatile 25 Years as NHL Commissioner

He's almost universally disliked, but has Bettman really been that bad for hockey? Let's find out!
February 1, 2018, 5:55pm
NHL commissioner Gary Bettman addressing reporters during All-Star weekend.

Gary Bettman's tenure as NHL commissioner turns 25 years old Thursday, which means it's only now realizing it will never be able to afford a home and its ability to avoid hangovers is all but gone. It's been a volatile quarter-century with Bettman at the helm, and if there's one thing we can say about his time at the league, it's that it definitely happened.

Bettman is almost universally disliked by anyone that isn't an NHL owner, but has he really been that bad for hockey? I decided to look at his time running the show and examine the pros and cons that have shaped a league that many are calling "a league that definitely still exists, we think."


1) The NHL expanded from 24 to 31 teams, with a 32nd team in Seattle seemingly destined to arrive in a couple years

Pros: If you ever wanted to spend $6 on center ice seats at an empty arena just outside Miami, Bettman made that possible for you. If you were a comedian running out of jokes about Atlanta being a shitty sports town, Bettman gave you years of fresh material. If you were a Kings fan and thought your team would never win a Stanley Cup, Bettman created a feeder franchise in Columbus that helped make your dreams come true. Twice.

Cons: Teams like the Panthers, Thrashers, and Blue Jackets playing in front of empty seats emboldens Canadians to feel superior and crack wise about how those markets don't deserve hockey, even though the Senators and Canucks have just as many tumbleweeds blowing through the building these days. There are enough bad markets on each side of the border to keep everyone unhappy.

2) Five teams relocated under Bettman’s watch—Quebec to Colorado, Winnipeg to Arizona, Hartford to Carolina, Minnesota to Dallas, and Atlanta to Winnipeg

Pros: Children were able to experience the loss of something they love and it didn't have to involve the death of a parent or divorce. You're never too young to learn that everything good in the world eventually goes away and you're powerless to stop it. Once you realize someone is capable of sticking a knife into five fan bases, you are stripped of the ability to trust, and that has to come in handy in all your adult relationships.


Cons: Again, more Canadian sanctimony for years until Winnipeg got a team back. It's also pretty funny that Colorado (84.7), Arizona (76.0), Carolina (68.9) are three of the bottom five teams this season in percentage of arena capacity filled. In hindsight, Canadians may have a point about filling a building. Send someone to Quebec already so people will stop yelling at me in French.

3) The NHL locked out players for half-seasons in 1994 and 2012, and then for the entire 2004-05 season

Pros: By denying fans the chance to watch hockey for a full year, Bettman allowed them to open their minds and hearts to new experiences, such as the NBA, MLB, and prestige television programs that tend to air at the same time as hockey. Thousands of dollars that normally went toward purchasing tickets could now be used to discover new, more-fulfilling hobbies that don't disappear once every eight years. In a way, three lockouts in 18 years were to benefit fans, not hurt them.

Cons: While fans of other sports have unique terminology like Hail Mary, home run, and slam dunk, hockey fans get to discuss things like cost certainty and escrow. The 1995 Devils and 2013 Blackhawks were only allowed to raise half a Stanley Cup banner to the rafters and we lost 150 games in the careers of legends like Jaromir Jagr, Martin Brodeur, and Teemu Selanne. I lost 20 percent of my salary during the 2013 lockout as an NHL employee, which I think is the thing everyone remembers from that one.


4) Beginning in 1998, the NHL allows its players to compete in the Winter Olympics

Pros: It's the best players in the world vs. the best players in the world in the most skilled version of hockey anyone has ever seen or will see. Everyone loves it. It can't be beaten.

Cons: There are none, as this will be something everyone can look forward to every four years forever.

5) Beginning in 2018, the NHL no longer allows its players to compete in the Winter Olympics

Pros: Because of the three lockouts, this hurts less than it normally would.

Cons: We will be subjected to weeks of stories about whether Brock Octagon, Tomas Squatl, and Igor Dickens will earn NHL contracts by doing well in a tournament against other guys not good enough to be in the NHL now. There will also be stories about how just because NHL stars aren't there, it doesn't mean winning gold wouldn't mean the world to Tyler Bongwater, Augustus Nestle, and Bjorn Yessterdai. Every story will be a reminder of what we're not getting.

6) Bettman hands out the Stanley Cup to the winning team's captain every year to thousands of boos from fans in the building

Pros: It's important to express anger in non-violent ways, and Bettman absorbing the vocalized hate for 25 years has prevented injury to others in the immediate area. The boos also keep Bettman alive, much the way oxygen does for other living things. It also teaches people that even though nobody likes you, it's important to continue to force your unneeded presence on others during the biggest moments in the lives of others, because fuck them, you're the commissioner and you can do whatever the hell you want.


Cons: Booing Bettman feels so good that it causes hockey fans to lose interest in non-hockey activities, like eating ice cream, riding roller coasters, and sex.

7) The NHL broke ties with ESPN and agreed to an exclusive TV deal with NBC that has existed since the 2004-05 lockout

Pros: After years of hearing ESPN anchors mispronounce the names of NHL players, it was nice to see someone else get a crack at it. By pushing hockey off the network, it gave us a chance to see more of the other sports we enjoy—things like poker, darts, and grown men shouting at each other about why LeBron James is overrated.

Cons: Thanks to Pierre McGuire, American viewers know more about the junior hockey careers of NHL players than the players themselves. People are missing entire playoff games because it takes at least three hours to figure out which channels have MSNBC and CNBC. Jimmy Fallon does a semi-regular bit involving NHL players that everyone has to pretend is funny.

8) The creation of outdoor games, specifically the Winter Classic and Stadium Series

Pros: Fans wanted to sit in freezing temperatures to watch a worse version of the sport further away from the rink for triple the cost, and the NHL obliged. They also demanded a product on TV that featured a mix of glare and shadows that sometimes involve a nausea-inducing camera angle, and the NHL was there for you again.

Cons: The NHL can't seem to find a way to get the Blackhawks in every game.


9) The NHL changed the All-Star voting process so fans couldn't send anyone they wanted to the game

Pros: Don't you hate it when a sports league in which you invest time and money pretends to care what you want? With the NHL, they flat-out tell you they don't give a shit what you want, even if it's for an exhibition game. Filling out ballots online takes a lot of time, and why spend that time on the NHL's website when you can be doing something more constructive, like cutting your toenails or organizing Friends episodes alphabetically. Why let fans vote Brian Boyle to the All-Star Game out of love when you can have the league add him later by accident and let the NHL take all the credit?

Cons: Between the rules for selecting guys to the game and the dropdown menus, helping your parents vote for All-Stars is the new helping your parents program the VCR/DVR. There's also something very NHL about letting fans vote for "captains" but then those captains don't pick the teams or decide who does what in the skills competition. These guys are captains much like the way Captain Crunch and Captain Morgan are captains.

10) The denial of a link between concussions and CTE

Pros: If you can deny a link between brain injuries and brain diseases, you can deny anything. Cold weather and frostbite? Sun and sunburn? The stopping of your heart and death? Bettman could deny he's punching you in the face while he was punching you in the face and still pass a lie detector test. [Editor's note: The NHL, without admitting liability, reached a tentative settlement on Nov. 13 in the ongoing concussion lawsuit levied by former players.]

Cons: Well, people are probably needlessly dying.

11) The league had a record $4.4 billion in revenue during the 2016-17 season

Pros: That's a whole lot of money to pay for all the bad suits owners wear. The more money you can hide from the players during the next lockout, the better.

Cons: Did you know that before the 2004-05 lockout, the NHL reported record revenues for the previous season? Did you know that before the 2012 lockout, the NHL reported record revenues for the previous season? I guess the con here is that nothing matters, not even record revenues, and the next lockout is only a couple years away.