The NHL and Gary Bettman: 25+ Years of Progress and Controversy

* originally published in Feb. 2018. Updated Sept. 2021

Gary Bettman gets booed when he speaks. A lot. He is the public face behind the decision not to allow NHL players to participate in the 2018 Olympics. When an owner wants public funds used to finance a new arena, Bettman makes the case in the media. He has led the NHL to three lockouts and supported the league to expand into non-traditional hockey markets with mixed results. He has also been behind new television deals, expanded access to the game, and masterminded new events. As the NHL Commissioner, he represents the owners of NHL teams. Yet, from the moment he took office in 1993 to the present day, NHL fans have been keen to show their distaste.

Is the NHL thriving under Gary Bettman? While many fans might say no, his contributions are significant.

The Case Against Gary Bettman

Gary Bettman was hired as the NHL’s first Commissioner with a mandate to end labor unrest (from ‘HOCKEY; Opening Day for N.H.L.’s First Commissioner,’ New York Times, 02/02/1993). Instead, his two-decade tenure has turned out to be the most unsettled of any major professional sports league.

Lost Seasons: 1993-94 and 2004-05

In 1993-94, during his second season at the helm, the NHL lost 103-days of play during a lockout. In 1995 the league agreed at Christmas to play an abbreviated 48-game schedule. The lockout had furthered economic upheaval.  The LA. Kings declared bankruptcy and owner Bruce McNall went to jail. The Quebec Nordiques were on their way to Denver, and the Winnipeg Jets were on the tenuous ground.

NHL Lockout
Is another lockout looming in the not so distant future? (Photo courtesy of D’Arcy Norman – Flickr)

While player salaries had increased following the ’94 lockout, Bettman did nothing to challenge the notion that NHL players were “privileged millionaires.” In 2004, the owners refused to negotiate and the season was canceled. The NLHPA disintegrated into rival factions and the owners were able to institute a salary cap. Before 2004, players could sign with the team willing to pay market value for their services. A hard salary cap was instituted and the players took a pay cut. The owners made more, and kept more. Fans lost a season.

The 2012 NHL Lockout

In 2012 the lockout issues were slightly different. The owners sought to reduce the players’ guaranteed 57% share of hockey-related revenues, introduce term limits on contracts, eliminate salary arbitration, and change free agency rules. By 2012, public perception was not on the owners’ side. Owners lost between $8 million and $10 million a day in revenue but would go on to negotiate a 50-50 split of hockey-related revenue under the new Collective Bargaining Agreement. This translated to well over $2 billion over a 10-year CBA.

Players lost around 40% of their wages for the lockout season and additional revenue going forward. No matter how you spin this, players have a smaller share of total dollars and fewer contract rights than they had before the lockout. One winner was expansion teams. New rules that placed a seven-year cap on individual contracts, and the 35% year-to-year variance limit on contracts. The reduction of the salary cap helped other smaller market teams as well. In Canada, however, businesses in areas with NHL teams were hurt because of the lockout.

Insistent Hockey Expansion into Non-traditional Markets

When Bettman took over in 1993, the NHL had expanded to 24 teams. The Florida Panthers and the Anaheim Mighty Ducks were both poised to join the league.

Early in Bettman’s watch, the league added the Nashville Predators, Atlanta Thrashers, Minnesota Wild and Columbus Blue Jackets, while moving the Minnesota North Stars to Dallas, the Quebec Nordiques to Denver, the Winnipeg Jets to Phoenix and the Hartford Whalers to North Carolina. However, these expansion teams found mixed success.

The Atlanta Thrashers, for example, only survived in Atlanta for about 12 years, before a combination of poor attendance, mismanagement off the ice, and a difficult arena situation eventually forced the team to move out of Atlanta for the second time. While this relocation brought a team back to Winnipeg, it is still seen as one of the biggest missteps of the Bettman era.

Arizona and Arenas

Another area of continuing concern is in Arizona. On top of bearing the weight of being the dearly departed original Winnipeg Jets, the Coyotes franchise has been plagued with problems from the outset. Their original home at the AmericaWest arena was not well-suited to hockey and their current home in Glendale is an hour from Phoenix and is in the process of evicting the hockey franchise from their building.

Phil Kessel Arizona Coyotes
While the Arizona Coyotes may be in the process of a deep rebuild, their off-ice issues will always overtake the conversation surrounding the team until they find stability in their market or relocate from Arizona. (Amy Irvin / The Hockey Writers)

Despite the Auston Matthews phenomenon, hockey is not indigenous to the desert, and the Coyotes have struggled to build a fanbase due once again to a combination of an inconsistent output on the ice and struggles to break into the cultural zeitgeist off it.

Perceived Disrespect to Canadian Franchises

Much to the chagrin of Canadian fans, during the Bettman years, the sunbelt teams have been a lot more successful in the playoffs than their Canadian brethren. For example, the Tampa Bay Lightning have won the Stanley Cup three times in the last 20 years, where the Carolina Hurricanes claimed the first Cup after the lockout in 2006, and the Anaheim Ducks followed in 2007.

This lack of ultimate success and team relocations has fueled a belief that the diminutive American has little respect for Canada and Canadian fans.

Gary Bettman Conn Smythe Trophy Victor Hedman Tampa Bay Lightning
Due in part to the success of non-traditional hockey markets in America, it is often believed that Bettman favors his expansion franchises and has helped them find more success than their Canadian brethren during his tenure. (Photo by Dave Sandford/NHLI via Getty Images)

Many Canadians have not forgiven Gary Bettman for relocating the Winnipeg Jets to Phoenix or the Quebec Nordiques to Colorado early in his tenure or for blocking the potential relocation of the Nashville Predators to Hamilton. While the return of the Jets has been lauded, rumblings continue that Quebec City is being kept from reclaiming a franchise.

In Defense of Gary Bettman

The success or failure of hockey teams in non-traditional markets shouldn’t be used to criticize Bettman. However, most fans would agree his focus has been to grow the business of hockey and not to protect the special connection Canadiens have with the game. This, of course, is not his remit. Bettman’s legacy must be based on his record to expand the game.

NHL Exposure on TV

The NHL has done a phenomenal job at marketing itself ever since the 2004-2005 lockout. A lot of that can be credited to the commissioner himself. Prior to the 2004-2005 lockout, the NHL had a TV contract with ESPN and ABC in the United States. That was nothing short of a disaster, and aside from maybe one or two games a week, ESPN brushed off hockey. In fact, the epic game 6 between the Flyers and Lightning was pushed to ESPN 2 for something along the lines of the World Series of Poker.

Post-lockout and in full recovery mode, the NHL signed a deal with OLN (Outdoor Life Network) as the exclusive broadcasting partner in the US. That transition started out very slow. OLN televised the first two games in the 2006 and 2007 Stanley Cup Final. Out of those four games, the highest rating was a 0.6, and the average ratings for the entire series were 1.8 in 2006 and 1.2 in 2007. As a comparison, in 2004, the Cup Final averaged a 2.7 on ABC and ESPN. Still, this was all part of a downward trend that had begun back in 2000. ESPN and ABC hadn’t made a change when the NHL’s ratings were declining. In 2000 the Finals posted a 3.7 rating, by 2004 it had dipped to 2.6.

Connecting to Comcast

OLN would rebrand itself to Versus for the start of the 2007-08 season, more importantly, they were owned by cable giant, Comcast, which was about to go through a period of rapid growth.

As of 2013, Comcast was far and away the leading cable provider in the US. Even more importantly, in 2011 Comcast acquired NBC Universal. This included networks such as USA, CNBC, and MSNBC. Then, not even a year later, the Comcast-owned Versus network rebranded itself to NBC Sports Network.

Related: The NHL Exclusively On NBC: A Decade of Growth, Turmoil, and Change

Bettman helped ensure every playoff game in 2012 was nationally televised. That paid off right away. The epic war fought between the Flyers and Penguins in the first round brought in outstanding ratings on a national scale. In fact, the playoffs as a whole did very well that year, with the exception of the Final, probably due to how lopsided it was early on. But having the Kings back in the Final did renew a lot of interest in hockey in Southern California.

Dustin Brown Los Angeles Kings owner Philip Anschutz 2014 Stanley Cup
Dustin Brown and Los Angeles Kings team owner Philip Anschutz celebrate after winning the 2014 Stanley Cup (Photo by Dave Sandford/NHLI via Getty Images)

The 10-year contract with NBCSN and NBC was the best thing to happen to the NHL at that time, as it gave the league a home and consistent coverage that helped to legitimize the sport once again.

The NHL Returns to ESPN

When the NHL’s deal with NBC/Universal ended in the summer of 2021, the league looked around at the market and believed they could find a new TV contract that would bring even more exposure and revenue to the league. After a bit of negotiation, they managed to do just that.

First, the NHL announced a partnership with the Walt Disney Company to be the primary host of their coverage. This seven-year, roughly $400 million per year deal was seen as a smart, forward-thinking move by the league, as it gave them access to Disney’s media empire, including the juggernaut that still is ESPN and their online streaming services.

The second part of the new TV rights was also a high risk, high reward move for the league, as Turner Broadcasting received a seven-year deal to be the secondary hosts of the package for roughly $225 million per year. This will put hockey front and center with another media giant, WarnerMedia, giving them access to a new audience both on cable and through their streaming platforms (who also is known for their stellar NBA coverage, which could be cross-promoted). If this move works, it could be a huge win for the league as they try to expand their viewership into new markets.

Highlights

The other thing the NHL did was to make their videos accessible to anyone. Unlike the MLB, If I want to go out and create a highlight video of Patrick Kane using the NHL’s clips, guess what? I can do it. There are thousands and thousands of highlight packages out there of all types of players. There’s even a dedicated website that archives every single NHL fight, and the best part is, the NHL’s policy allows for it.

In 2010 NHL adopted the ‘History Will Be Made’ campaign in 2010, and it was immediately a home run. These commercials quickly went viral and truly brought out the raw emotion of the playoffs. Thousands of user-created videos flooded YouTube.

Gary Bettman NHL Paul Holmgren Philadelphia Flyers
By embracing some aspects of modern video sharing, the NHL has done a good job at allowing highlights from the league to be shown on websites like youtube. causing natural marketing to occur. (Amy Irvin / The Hockey Writers)

Secondly, the NHL took advantage of YouTube in a variety of ways early on. Since the ‘new NHL’ came about in 2005-2006, the NHL has posted clips and highlights of every single game that has been played. They aren’t just on their website, they’re on YouTube still, so you can go look up a game from 2006, and it’ll be there.

The NHL’s marketing team has done a brilliant job with getting the game the exposure, and that is just another thing that can fall on Gary Bettman’s watch.

The Business Side

The case against Bettman is in part a reaction to the lockouts on his watch. While a legacy of lockouts is hardly good news the NHL is reaping the benefits today. Before the 2004 lockout, there was absolutely no balance in the NHL. If you’re a ‘rich’ team in the NHL, you could throw everything but the kitchen sink at the most prized free agent.

Take, for example, the Flyers. In 2004 the Flyers were one of the best teams in the Eastern Conference and had their fair share of really decent players. Primeau, LeClair, Recchi, and Roenick were all Flyers at the time. The Flyers had $22 million tied up in just three of those players. Why? Because they could.

That all changed after the 2004-2005 lockout. A hard salary cap of $39 million was instituted for the next season. This meant teams like the Flyers couldn’t drop $22 million on three players. The cap did what it was supposed to do. The Penguins became relevant again, the Blackhawks found new life, and those smaller market teams now had a chance to compete for big-name free agents.

Revenues and Imagination

Bettman’s era has brought some important positive changes to the league. Revenues have quintupled in size and player payrolls followed suit. The NHL has played regular-season games in international markets, broadening its global appeal. The league created the successful Winter Classic, the annual outdoor game played on Jan. 1 that has caught the imagination of the U.S. TV viewing public while packing historic stadiums such as Wrigley Field and Fenway Park and even the Cotton Bowl with tens of thousands of fans proudly sporting their teams’ colors.

Tuukka Rask
The Winter Classic has become an important milestone event in the NHL schedule and is one that fans look forward to each and every year, regardless of the teams competing. (Photo by Gregory Shamus/Getty Images)

Television revenues have grown significantly as have league sponsorship deals. He helped stabilize wobbly franchises in Edmonton, Calgary, and Ottawa through the Canadian currency-assistance program while enabling Minnesota and Winnipeg to get their franchises back.

Even recent expansions have been huge wins for the NHL. First, the Vegas Golden Knights entered the league by paying roughly $500 million in expansion fees, nearly won the Stanley Cup in their first season, and has gone on to foster one of the largest nightly fanbases in the league in just a handful of years.

This has been followed up by the Seattle Kraken, who paid roughly $650 million for their expansion fee and went on to sell out their season tickets almost immediately. While the fledgling franchise can’t be called a guaranteed success just yet, it appears the Bettman has found another strong market that is ready to support the NHL for years and hopefully decades to come.

New Challenges

Gary Bettman is a mystery wrapped in an enigma. In some ways, he is brilliant. In other ways, totally tone-deaf. The John Scott fiasco is a prime example of why some fans will never warm to Bettman.

The NHL faces new and serious challenges. Is Bettman up to navigating these difficult waters?

Can the league continue to make the business case for expanding into non-traditional markets?

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How will the league respond to the first discovery of the first case of a living person identified with the degenerative brain disease, chronic traumatic encephalopathy, or CTE? The research seemingly cements the relationship between contact sports and brain damage and it will have profound implications for the NHL.

Fans will boo Gary Bettman again. Sometimes it appears he enjoys it. In assessing Bettman’s legacy, people struggle to separate the personal from the professional. Some will always consider him to be an outsider, never having been steeped in hockey culture. However, Bettman has been commissioner for nearly 25 years, and it is hard to imagine the NHL without him.


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