Reviewing The Instigator: How Gary Bettman Remade the NHL and Changed the Game Forever

Gary Bettman’s earliest steps in the world of hockey would be considered out of the ordinary by most fans. You’ll have to turn the cover of Jonathon Gatehouse’s The Instigator to find why! Though it wasn’t until his Cornell indoctrination in 1970 – while Ken Dryden was carving history into ice, that destiny’s course would begin for Bettman. When asked, “Bettman likes to say that his ascent to big-league sports commissioner was mostly due to serendipity.”

There are only four of these jobs. If that’s what you wanted to be, you probably needed to be heavily medicated.

Gary Bettman – The Instigator

Most fans associate Bettman with the league’s three infamous lockouts and the dreaded salary cap, but Gatehouse has bored even deeper into the drama of modern-day, salary cap hockey. He shares intimate details from the inner sanctums of the league where we learn of undisciplined owners and greedy players. Bettman’s vision for a great brand, more goals, and more television is the story of a marketing genius.

Gary Bettman
NHL Commissioner Gary Bettman (AP Photo/Patrick Semansky)

This story started in December of 1992 and is here, exclusively, wrapped in a shiny black-mirrored dust jacket nestled up next to Patrick Roy: Winning, Nothing Else. If you pay close attention, you may find Bettman’s plan was inspired not by his own imagination. As it turns out, the head of the players’ union – Donald Fehr, was on the scene much earlier than his 2005 lockout appearance, lurking in the shadows of another sports labor dispute, possibly tugging on Bettman’s strings.

Oh’ Canada

It has been an often spoken fallacy that Bettman is unsympathetic to Canadian fans. That he intends to rip hockey by the root and make it strictly an American product wasn’t entirely baseless. Numerous prospective team owners pitched for new Canadian teams or to move other failing teams to Canada where the fan base was strong. Many fans and even executives sounded out loudly; newspapers and casters fanned the flames of anarchy enough for him to fly into Canada to smother them. It is true that the market for hockey is strongest in Canada. The trouble is the economy.

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It wasn’t conducive to the Canadian dollar and most of the northern franchises couldn’t compete for talent nor had the financial stability of the Goliath in Toronto. Every team in Canada was in danger of capitulating if something creative wasn’t done soon. Bettman was forced to attract many investors, who would need to invest in a lot more than hockey to keep their locales alive. Being the leader sometimes equates to tough decisions that lead to sacrifice. It is Bettman who saved hockey in Canada, not the Canadians.

The Instigator (Image courtesy of Amazon)

Though irksome in his self-righteousness, Bettman has been a warrior for hockey, and unabashedly earned this notable title. The stories are a torrent of information, and you may find yourself rewinding more than once. Surprisingly, Gatehouse is brief in Bettman’s profound upbringing and plentiful in general league history. Nevertheless, he is portrayed as a hard worker, emboldened by the odds. For a league that struggles to gain national attention, with little leverage he drives a hard bargain with reluctant sponsors – for the love of the game.

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As the league’s financial paradigm was shifting in favor of the players, a geyser let-loose amid unwritten rules set by league management. In 1992, St. Louis Blues’ general manager Ron Caron went rogue. Breaking ranks with his fellow general managers, he signed Scott Stevens away from the Washington Capitals with a 300-percent raise and then Brendan Shanahan away from the New Jersey Devils. The league and players were catapulted into an uproar and the start of a new market began to take shape.  

I’ve never once, in all the years that he’s been commissioner, felt that he was telling me anything other than the truth.

Ed Snider – Philadelphia Flyers, Owner

The truth is, the NHL and Gary Bettman needed each other. The “awfully ambitious” young lawyer – as he is described by mentor David Stern – found the grandiose challenge he was seeking, and the team owners found a savior for the league that didn’t know it was dying.

This is not about a league fighting with a union. It’s about a league fighting for its future.

Gary Bettman – The Instigator

The Bettman name has become synonymous with the NHL just as David Stern, Roger Goodell, and Bud Selig have become for their respective leagues. In the age of couch side managers and fantasy fanatics, this book beckons a sports-minded nation.