David Branch distinctly remembers what he refers to as his first “Gary Bettman moment.”
It was at a junior hockey game and the Ontario Hockey League commissioner was on hand to drop the ceremonial puck with a former player from the home team. When the player had been introduced, the arena had erupted in cheers. And then, came Branch’s intro.
“It was like flipping a switch,” he said. “It went from an outstanding ovation to a chorus of boos. A friend of mine was in the stands and he said this guy, who didn’t know who I was, leaned over to him and said, ‘Why are they booing?’
“My friend said: ‘Because he’s the commissioner.’”
Branch understands better than most that Bettman’s job is a thankless one. Which is why he was more than happy to give Bettman the equivalent of a pat on the back by voting him into the Hockey Hall of Fame on Tuesday.
“I’m a huge admirer,” said Branch, one of 18 members on the Hall’s selection committee.
Branch is part of a small group of people who presides over amateurs or professional sports leagues. It’s nothing personal, but no one really likes the commissioner of any sports league. The reason is because the role of the commissioner, as perceived by the public, is to maximize profit for the greedy owners — not do what’s in the best interest of the fans. Often, it means he’s the fall guy for decisions beyond his control.
“To some extent, these are thankless positions,” Dave Andrews, the commissioner of the American Hockey League, said. “But Gary would very much be appreciated by the ownership in the league and the management in the league and a lot of the stakeholders who he’s really helped. I think he’s very much appreciated for what he’s done.”
For many who aren’t an NHL owner or in team management, Bettman’s legacy contains three labour stoppages, the refusal to go participate in the 2018 Olympics and the denial linking concussions with CTE. Former player Daniel Carcillo, who recently joined a lawsuit filed against Bettman alleging the league did not warn its players of the long-term risk of brain damage from playing hockey, tweeted on Tuesday: “Gary Bettman had a hand in every death by withholding info about the risks of doing their job.”
With the CBA set to expire in another couple of years, potentially resulting in another lockout, it was a curious decision why the Hockey Hall of Fame committee didn’t wait until Bettman was at least retired before inducting him into the builder’s category.
Then again, based on how revenues have climbed since 2012-13, another labour stoppage might cause the owners to deify him ever more.
“I’ve long marvelled at the strength of Mr. Bettman and his leadership skills, which include an incredible toughness to make tough decisions,” Branch said. “I think he’s been the right leader at the right time to help the league grow at all levels of the game.”
When Bettman replaced Gil Stein as commissioner in 1993, the NHL was basically a mom-and-pop league with revenues of about $400 million. Today, you can’t even buy a franchise for that amount.
Under Bettman, the NHL has reached the big time, expanding from 24 to 31 teams, with another soon to be on the way, and growth of its yearly revenues past the $3-billion mark. He’s changed the NHL’s geography. The NHL was the first of the major leagues to plant its flag in Las Vegas. At this year’s NHL Draft, there were players selected from 14 different countries, including one each from Jamaica, Thailand and England.
Without Bettman’s controversial sun-belt expansion, 2016 No. 1 overall pick Auston Matthews, an Arizona native, might be playing for the Toronto Blue Jays not the Maple Leafs. Without his stubbornness in refusing to relocate troubled franchises, Nashville wouldn’t have celebrated a trip to last year’s final.
“The growth of the game — and I just don’t look at it in terms of the dollars and cents and the financial component, is very real and significant,” Branch said. “When you describe the franchise locations and some of the challenges in moving a franchise or not to move a franchise, I’ve really learned a lot from Mr. Bettman.”
Indeed, once you’re out of breath from booing the commissioner’s entry into the Hall, consider what hockey looked like when Bettman arrived.
Under his rule, he has given fans a product that is far superior to the skate-in-mud style of game that dominated the early ’90s.
When was the last time you saw a staged fight or players getting away with hooking and holding an opponent because they couldn’t keep up? The game still has its issues regarding concussions, but hits to the head are finally trending down. Players are smaller and more skilled than ever before — including goalies, whose equipment isn’t as bulky — and because of various rule changes that Bettman helped to introduce, we’re seeing more goals and more highlight-reel plays.
The NHL is no longer thought of as a fringe sport in parts of the U.S. After a successful expansion into Las Vegas, where more eyeballs were on this year’s Stanley Cup final than in the past three years, the league is now rubbing shoulders with the NFL, NBA and MLB.
That’s Bettman’s doing. And it’s worth applauding.
“I think if anyone was looking at the state of the game today, one way or another his leadership has impacted the way the game is played and the quality of the competition,” Andrews said. “Really, the NHL is as good a place as it’s ever been.”
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