In 1992, Whitney Houston’s “I Will Always Love You” ruled the airwaves and Michael Keaton donned the Bat suit. Also, at the NHL owners’ meeting in the middle of December, Gary Bettman was announced as the first commissioner of the league, taking over from Gil Stein who had served as league president.
By December 1992, the Tampa Bay Lightning were two months into their inaugural season and on their way to winning three Stanley Cups. With both Bettman and the Lightning celebrating 30 years, it’s a perfect time to examine how each has grown and to recognize their hard-fought achievements.
First NHL Commissioner
Although five men had served as the president of the NHL, Gary Bettman was hired to be the first commissioner of the league. He is the longest-serving active commissioner in professional sports. However, he has weathered his share of criticism regarding the changes to how the game is played and the three lockout seasons under his watch. His stance on players participating in the Olympics has also been polarizing – depending on what side of the debate you sit on.
However, let’s not dwell on the negatives while there are so many positives that Bettman brings to the game. The highest among his achievements is the fact that NHL revenues were only $400 million when he took over as commissioner. For the 2018-19 season, before COVID-19 put game attendance in a free-fall, revenue hit $5.09 billion. Last season, the league generated $6.1 billion. He also instituted a salary cap that created parity among all 32 teams and keeps smaller market teams afloat.
In recognition of Bettman’s 25th anniversary, Kevin McGran of the Toronto Star wrote, “The NHL was essentially a mom-and-pop shop from the time of the Original Six through its early expansion years in the late 1960s. Owners of the teams relied on the teams themselves for income.” Bettman created additional ways to earn income and grow the game beyond Canada and the northeastern U.S.
Although the Lightning had been granted a franchise before Bettman became commissioner, his commitment to expanding into non-traditional markets ensures a broader appeal for the game and establishes a future fanbase. When he arrived in 1993, there were 24 teams. Since then, the NHL has expanded/moved to non-traditional hockey cities such as Anaheim, Columbus, Dallas, Miami, Nashville, and Raleigh. His determination to keep the Arizona Coyotes franchise in the Phoenix metropolitan area has also given the league a presence in the fifth-largest city in the U.S.
Smart decisions have increased the collective value of NHL franchises to $32.4 billion, which makes owning a team a worthy investment. Phil Esposito paid $50 million for the Lightning 30 years ago. The price tag to purchase an NHL expansion team in 2016 was $500 million for the Vegas Golden Knights. When the league granted an expansion team to Seattle, the purchase price increased to $650 million.
Related: The NHL and Gary Bettman: 25+ Years of Progress and Controversy
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In addition to financial stability under Bettman’s leadership and the expansion to 32 teams, he also negotiated a long-term TV contract, created the popular Winter Classic, broadened the global appeal of the NHL with the Global Series, and forged a path to playing hockey during a worldwide pandemic. For his achievements, he was inducted into the Hockey Hall of Fame in 2018.
Tampa Bay Lightning Enters League
On Wednesday, Oct. 7, 1992, the Lightning played their very first game in the NHL as a member of the Norris Division. Those early years were challenging for the team, as they teetered on the brink of bankruptcy. Jeff Vinik then bought the team for $140 million in 2010. In 2022, the team was valued at $1 billion, making them one of the NHL’s top 15 most valuable franchises.
The Lightning have sold out 300-plus consecutive home games, the longest current streak in the NHL. They are a model franchise with stable ownership that has grown the game of hockey in Florida – exactly what Bettman wanted when he began expanding south.
The New Golden Age of Hockey
Coming from the NBA to the NHL, many fans considered Bettman a “basketball guy.” He wasn’t even Canadian. Even though it’s not his fault, no team from Canada has won the Cup since his arrival in 1993.
On the flip side, the Lightning have thrived, especially lately, under Bettman’s leadership. How can anyone dislike the man who hands your team the Stanley Cup?
The NHL produced a promotional video that states that fans are witnessing the next Golden Age of hockey. With revenue up, teams financially stable, scoring increasing, attendance steady, and a viable TV broadcasting agreement, there is no disputing that it is the Golden Age of the NHL right now – and the Lightning are basking in the glow.