Gary Bettman has been the only commissioner in the history of the NHL. Credit: Getty Images
A senior vice president and general counsel with the NBA strolled into a conference room in Palm Beach, Fla., on Dec. 11, 1992, to meet with the NHL’s Board of Governors to discuss the newly created position of commissioner.
Gary Bettman is still firmly entrenched as the only commissioner in NHL history 21 years later.
For all the criticism of Bettman during his tenure, he has been the steward for a league that has never been stronger financially, with revenues growing to the point the salary cap will top out at $71 million next season.
Metro New York spoke with Bettman on the eve of the Stadium Series games to discuss the state of the league.
Metro: Heading into the Stadium Series games, how would you characterize the state of the league over the last 18 months?
Bettman: We are having a terrific season. Last season was extraordinarily strong under the circumstances, and [I] couldn’t be more bullish or optimistic about the future.
Where do you envision the league heading in the next year to five years?
We’re going to continue to grow our fanbase. We’re going to continue to take advantage of the opportunities presented by digital media platforms. We’re going to continue to grow the game from the grass roots and internationally, and we’re going to make sure the game is as strong, as exciting and as safe on the ice as it can be.
You mentioned digital. Obviously you signed the deal Rogers, and have GameCenter. Do you foresee a time when the league is a digital-only product and does not need a traditional television broadcast partner?
No. We’re grateful to have such terrific media partners. Whether or not it’s NBC in the United States at the national level plus all of the [regional sports networks] or whether or not it’s our new partnership with Rogers [Communications in Canada] going forward that will continue to include the CBC [Canadian Broadcasting Corporation]—and we’re grateful for the treatment that we’ve gotten from Bell [Canada, a telecommunications corporation] over the years—so we think our media partners have been not only cooperative and supportive, they’ve been instrumental in helping to grow the game.
You mentioned your media partners. Obviously you have the national deal in the United States with NBC and now Rogers in Canada. It certainly appears the league is very comfortable having two networks with national broadcast rights in each country. What is the benefit for the league in one network in each country holding broadcast rights instead of multiple broadcast partners?
We have multiple broadcast partners. We have NBC and the NBC Sports [Network] nationally; they just happen to be owned by the same [corporate] entity [Comcast]. When it comes to production and promotion and scheduling, having a commonality of interest which NBC and NBC Sports Net clearly have, is really good for us as we try to increase our presence.
Is there an overriding accomplishment over these last 18 months that you take the most satisfaction from?
I don’t operate by doing that.
Is expansion something you would consider right now or are you comfortable at 30 teams?
We’re comfortable at 30 teams although we have been getting a tremendous amount of interest from places all over North America. We are not, at this point, focused at doing anything other than maintaining the 30 teams that we have although we are gratified by all of the expressions of interest.
Florida, Phoenix and New Jersey were sold to new ownership groups in the last six months. Is there a commonality with those ownership groups as far as their relationship with their markets?
The commonality is all three franchises were put by the media on the endangered species list and none of them were endangered. We have strong, new ownership in each of those markets; committed to those franchises in [those] markets and they bring increased resources to the operation of the club which is good news for the fans of all three teams.
A recent report in the South Florida Sun-Sentinel regarding the Panthers asking Broward County to rewrite its agreement in order for the franchise to be financially viable in the market. Are you confident that Broward County and the Panthers will be able come to an agreement?
You would have to ask the people down in South Florida about that. Is it unusual for a building arrangement to be adjusted for the benefit of hindsight? [No], and it’s happened in many places.
From your vantage point is there a difference between the Panthers relationship with Broward County compared to that of the Islanders with Nassau County?
The fact is Broward County has built a state-of-the-art arena, and it’s one of the nicest arenas in North America. Nassau County doesn’t have the same thing.
This year the NHL is holding six outdoor games. What was the process the league used to settle upon six games?
It is not one that is susceptible to an algorithm. We knew there was tremendous interest by lots of our teams and lots of markets in which our teams play, lots of our fans to have more of these games and we’re trying to respond to the interest. We’ve tried to be somewhat creative in the way we’ve approached it and we thought the juxtaposition of having a game in Dodger Stadium and then Yankee Stadium within 18 hours of each other, in addition to being interesting, is going to be a lot of fun.
What are your expectations for the Stadium Series games, outside of being fun and revenue generators?
What they’re about is fun in terms of how our fans get new, exciting and interesting ways to connect with our game. When you think to the Winter Classic in Ann Arbor, [Mich.] a couple weeks ago, there were over a 100,000 people who had the experience of a lifetime connecting to our game.
One of the host venues is Yankee Stadium, which already hosts the Pinstripe Bowl. Could you envision a scenario in which Citi Field or MetLife Stadium could host a Winter Classic?
We never rule anything in or anything out. We try to be sensible in terms of the decisions we make at the time.
Could you envision Yankee Stadium ever hosting a Winter Classic?
Not as long as they have the Pinstripe Bowl. It doesn’t work logistically. But as it relates to Citi Field or MetLife Stadium, they are both magnificent facilities.
One of the Stadium Series host cities, Los Angeles, you can call it a non-traditional market. Do you think if the Ducks-Kings Stadium Series game goes smoothly it could allow other non-traditional markets to host a Winter Classic or Stadium Series?
Based on how long the Kings have been in Los Angeles, check the term non-traditional. Is it a little warmer than some of our markets? The answer is yes. But if you look at recent history there are two recent Stanley Cups in southern California. We have players who are born and raised in southern California drafted into the league in the first round. If you look at how all three California teams are playing this year, it’s nothing short of spectacular. There are lots of passionate hockey fans at all levels of the game in California who are very excited about NHL hockey, about the teams they root for and about the game at Dodger Stadium.
Finally, you are about to begin your 21st year as commissioner. When you accepted the position, did you envision being commissioner for 21 years?
Well, you make it sound like I’m done. The fact is, as I was growing up I never envisioned being a commissioner. I don’t focus on any particular timeline. I do this job because I’m passionate about the game and what I do.
Follow Rangers beat writer Denis Gorman on Twitter@DenisGorman.