Evaluating NHL Commissioner Gary Bettman's 16-Year Tenure

Steve ThompsonAnalyst IIIMay 10, 2009

PITTSBURGH - APRIL 15:  NHL Commissioner Gary Bettman addresses the media during game one of the 2009 Eastern Conference quarterfinals between the Pittsburgh Penguins and the Philadelphia Flyers at Mellon Arena on April 15, 2009 in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania.  (Photo by Jamie Sabau/Getty Images)

In an earlier article written during the regular season about what direction the NHL should take for its future, I stated that changes were going to come because of the current economic crisis and the state of the NHL which had ten money-losing franchises.

Now a crisis has come, faster than I expected.  There have been two separate bids to move  money-losing franchises to Hamilton, and another NHL owner has publicly lamented he ever bought his team. 

Recently, there have been many articles written on BR calling for the removal of Gary Bettman and now the Toronto Sun has recommended it in an editorial.  With these things in mind, it is a good time to evaluate Bettman's sixteen year tenure as NHL commissioner before calling for his head.

Here are some of the goals and issues he has achieved or failed to accomplish and resolve.

1.  Revenue

This has been his best success. He increased revenues from $400 million a year to $2.2 billion. 

2.  Salary Cap

A mixed result here. The NHL finally has a much needed salary cap. But the cost was an entire season lost, something unprecedented in a "big four" sport. 

The verdict: Tremendous short-term cost but in the long term, the league will benefit.  Time will be produce a more favorable judgement for him.

3.  Franchise Protection

Bettman developed a plan that saw financial assistance provided to struggling franchises. This should be remembered when people accuse him of an anti-Canadian bias. Again a great success.

4.  American Television

Bettman got reasonable television contracts initially from Fox, ABC, and ESPN.  But when hockey still did not take off in the United States, he had to settle for much less with VERSUS and NBC.  Ratings in the United States remain pitiful.  Verdict:  Short term revenue success but long term failure.

5.  Hockey Popularity In The United States

This is Bettman's most controversial area and has led to most of his mistakes. In order to increase revenues for the league and establish it as a "big four" sport in the United States, he wanted to get an American tv contract on the scale of the NFL, NBA and MLB.

There was nothing wrong with this goal but the means he set about trying to achieve it have blown up in his face. 

Bettman figured that the way to get the increased television was to expand hockey into unfamiliar American markets in order give the appearance that hockey was a national American game. 

As mentioned above, hockey has failed to become popular in America and has left this legacy:

A. Dallas, Minnesota

One of the first things that occurred when Bettman became commissioner in 1993 was the approval of the transfer of Minnesota to Dallas. 

Minnesota was later given an expansion team. Both teams have done well and hockey has gained in popularity in these regions. A success for Bettman.

B.  Anaheim and Colorado

Both the expansion and relocated teams have done well and hockey has gained in popularity.  Two more successes for Bettman.

C.  Carolina and Columbus

They may finally have turned the corner and become profitable thanks to having developed competitive teams, but it has taken some time.  Bettman may eventually get a favorable verdict but for now he gets a cautious grade of C-plus.

D.  Quebec, Winnipeg, and Hartford

This is one of Bettman's biggest failures. All three had arena problems but nothing compared to the current money losers. 

Bettman made little attempt to either find new investors or encourage these cities to build new arenas. It suited his purpose to hurt hockey in Canada and the northern United States by allowing these franchises to be transferred too easily to his "unfamiliar" American markets. 

As noted above, Colorado was a success, Carolina a mixed bag, and Phoenix a failure. Much of the perception of an anti-Canadian bias comes from this issue. His defense of the current money-losers against Jim Balsillie in contrast to his previous acquiescence only reinforces the image of a two-faced anti-Canadian.

E.  Florida, Nashville, Atlanta, and Phoenix 

All four of these franchises are failures.  Briefly, Florida seemed to turn the corner when it made the Stanley Cup finals but that only lasted a season and now Florida is one of the teams that pads attendance and almost gives away tickets for next to nothing.

The other three teams have been hampered by bad ownership and management.  None of them have won a playoff round.

Both Atlanta and Phoenix are targets to be transferred to Hamilton.  Nashville has troubled ownership and took a step backwards by not making the playoffs.  Florida still did not make the playoffs and will likely lose Jay Bouwmeester to free agency.

All four teams are festering wounds and Bettman's conflict with Balsillie who may be the only person wanting to bail the NHL out of the Phoenix situation is pointless.

F.  Canada and the northern United States

In pursuit of making hockey one of the "big four" sports in the United States, Bettman shunned expansion and relocation to Canada and the northern U.S. Three northern cities were stripped of their franchises and Hamilton was blocked twice from acquiring one. 

With proper arenas, Winnipeg, Hamilton, Quebec, Seattle, Portland, and Milwaukee, and Hartford are probably sure successes. 

Ironically, Bettman might have got a better television contract for the NHL if he had expanded into natural markets in the northern United States where hockey is more popular which might have translated into better tv ratings.


Bettman has done much good for hockey, increasing its popularity in some American cities, getting a salary cap, albeit at some cost, developing a financial assistance fund, and greatly increasing NHL revenues.

But now it is time for a rethink of strategy and a new direction. Drop the idea of becoming a "big four" sport in the United States, at least temporarily. End the stupid defense of Phoenix in which Jerry Moyes has lost nearly $100 million and switch it to money-making Hamilton. 

Transfer the remaining money-losers to more profitable cities in Canada and the United States.

It may be a loss of face but by admitting a mistake, but a new long term strategy will get the NHL out its current morass and into new areas of growth.

And if Bettman cannot adjust his thinking to the current situation, he should resign.


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