Book Review: The Instigator – How Gary Bettman Remade the League and Changed the Game Forever

Gary Bettman book
Gary Bettman is the subject of Jonathan Gatehouse’s new book The Instigator (Tom Turk/THW)

Gary Bettman is a polarizing figure. In the almost 20 years since his installation as NHL commissioner, the league has expanded from 26 teams to 30; 2 franchises left Canada, and one moved to Canada; league revenues have increased from $400MM to $3.3B; events like the Winter Classic have been increasing the league’s popularity and exposure; and there have been 3 work stoppages, including the current lockout. Depending on who you talk to, Gary Bettman is either the greatest business leader the sport has had, or the man who set out to rip hockey from Canadians and destroy everything the sport once was.

In The Instigator, journalist Jonathon Gatehouse presents a detailed look at Gary Bettman’s origins, his entrée into industrial and labour relations, and how the path led him to be the man entrusted with growing a sport entrenched in the Canadian psyche but struggling to find a national American audience.

Gatehouse opens with the scene in Vancouver’s Rogers Arena, Bettman booed by the Canucks faithful as he presents the Stanley Cup to the Boston Bruins in the spring of 2011. The booing is nothing new – it traces its origin back to 1995 New Jersey – but Gatehouse takes the opportunity to illustrate Bettman’s character here. Certainly, he’d prefer to be cheered, but Gary Bettman is not particularly bothered by the boos that follow him in every arena. He has a job to do, and whether the fans love him or hate him, he intends to grow the NHL according to what he’s determined is the correct method. And this idea that Gary Bettman does the job of running the NHL without regard to how he is treated by the fans, media, players or even the owners is present throughout.

[RELATED: 25 Years of Progress and Controversy Under Gary Bettman’s Rule]

“To be able to come back to right a wrong, if you will, is an extraordinary thing” – Bettman on the NHL’s return to Winnipeg (Tucker Photography, Calgary, Alberta)

This is not a page by page account of Bettman. Yes, there are passages where Bettman’s tendency to pronounce edicts and make changes, such as the way he remade the Board of Governors meetings to be formal gatherings for conducting business. But there are also sections where the commissioner is hardly mentioned at all as Gatehouse explains the business of the NHL. We see how Mark Chipman stepped in after the Jets left Winnipeg and filled the void with the Manitoba Moose, and how things unfolded so that it was the Atlanta Thrashers and not the Phoenix Coyotes that returned to a former NHL market. There’s some ‘behind the scenes’ looks at the ups and downs surrounding the various attempts to get the NHL on national American networks. There is insight into how the NHL negotiates marketing deals, and how the ‘team payroll range system’ has succeeded and failed, leading to the 2012 lockout. Throughout, there is an over-arcing sense that Bettman is behind it all, directing everything.

NHL commissioner Gary Bettman and NHLPA executive director Donald Fehr
NHL commissioner Gary Bettman and NHLPA executive director Donald Fehr (Tom Szczerbowski-USA TODAY Sports)

Gatehouse is fairly even in his presentation. There is full acknowledgement that people range widely on their impression of the commissioner. Insight about Bettman are quoted from many sources, among them deputy Bill Daly and Bettman friend (and former head of NBC Sports) Dick Ebersol, as well as author Russ Conway and Toronto sports personality Bob McCown, both of whom have relationships with the NHL’s chief that could be described as ‘prickly’. While some hold the commissioner in high regard for his intelligence, others characterize him as a huge ego, someone who demands he be seen as the smartest guy in the room. Gatehouse does not shy away from either positive or negative characterizations, while seeming to remain mostly neutral himself.

After reading The Instigator, there should be no doubt left that many of the things we’ve heard about Bettman are true. Unlike past presidents of the league, he has, as Gatehouse points out, ‘succeeded in transforming (the NHL) as a business.’ While he does represent the NHL’s owners, he is not simply a passive figurehead. Gary Bettman has an active vision around which everything revolves. He realizes the importance of hockey to Canada, but knows the game must adapt in order to grow outside that cradle. He believes his way will prove to be the best way to elevate the NHL among pro sports in North America. It may never reach the level of the others, but for Bettman, that’s no excuse to abandon the effort.

As the 2012-13 NHL season has seen the first cancellation of games, The Instigator is an important resource in understanding how we got to this point, and how much is left to be done.

The Instigator: How Gary Bettman Remade the League and Changed the Game Forever. By Jonathon Gatehouse. (2012, Toronto: Viking. Hardcover. Pp. 320. $32.00. ISBN 978-0-0670-06592-9.)

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