Excerpted from The Instigator: How Gary Bettman Remade the League and Changed the Game Forever, out in Canada now and in the U.S. Oct. 1.
The full beer cup arcs from the not-so-cheap seats of Vancouver's Rogers Arena toward the home end of the ice, golden contrail spreading out behind. It lands and splatters, short and a little to the left of the intended target, but close enough that he has to notice. Still, Gary Bettman doesn't flinch. Wireless microphone raised to his lips, tight smile firmly in place, free hand tucked casually in his suit pants pocket, the commissioner of the National Hockey League carries on with the speech that no one in the rink can hear over the cacophony of booing and catcalls. Boston's Tim Thomas skates forward to accept the Conn Smythe Trophy as the 2011 Stanley Cup playoffs' most valuable player as the beers—and now plastic water bottles—continue to fly. There's a polite burst of applause, as the burly goalie grins and poses for photographers. Then, just to make sure things haven't been misconstrued, the crowd of 18,860 takes up the chant, "Bettman sucks! Bettman sucks!"
The sequence is much the same when a pair of white-gloved custodians from the Hockey Hall of Fame carry the Cup onto the ice: clapping for the chalice, some high-decibel abuse for the man giving it away. And the odd missile from the stands. Zdeno Chara, the Bruins' towering and glowering captain, doesn't even realize the presentation is underway until Bettman beckons him up to the red carpet. There's a lopsided exchange, in which the 5-foot-6 commissioner looks like the mayor of Munchkinland next to the 6-foot-9-plus-skates Slovak defenceman. Seconds later, the Bruins are celebrating in a pulsating mob at centre ice, while the whipping boy ducks back down the tunnel, surrounded by NHL security.
Afterwards, the commissioner will pretend it was no big deal, chalking up the hostile reception to the Game 7 disappointment of Canucks fans, which was compounded by having to watch a despised opponent celebrate on their own turf. But home or away, the reaction has long been the same. In a sport that prides itself on its rituals, the jeering of the Bettman has become an annual rite of spring, as predictable as undisclosed injuries and bushy playoff beards.
In June 1993, just a few months into the job, he got a pass from fans in Montreal when the Habs beat Wayne Gretzky and the Los Angeles Kings in five with the help of the ghosts at the storied Forum. (How else does one explain the team's ten consecutive overtime wins over four rounds?) And the relief felt in New York the next year when the Rangers finally secured the Cup, ending a fifty-four-year drought with a see-saw Game 7 victory over the Canucks, made the habitually harsh Madison Square Garden atmosphere positively giddy—Mark Messier hoisting Stanley to the strains of Tina Turner's "Simply the Best" and "Iron Mike" Keenan doling out hugs.
But in the wake of a lockout that held the sport hostage for 103 days, there was little respect left for authority at the Meadowlands when the New Jersey Devils trapped their way to a sweep of the Detroit Red Wings in June 1995. The league was in transition. The Quebec Nordiques were already on their way to Denver. The future of the Winnipeg Jets hung in the balance. The LA Kings, laid low by the fiscal implosion and arrest of Bruce McNall, had declared bankruptcy. And even the team Bettman was about to crown Stanley Cup champions was threatening to bolt to greener pastures in Nashville. The problem was a familiar one—building envy. John McMullen, the Devils' owner, had moved the Rockies from Colorado to his native New Jersey in 1982 to take advantage of a shiny new 20,000-seat rink that was begging for tenants. But fourteen years later, Brendan Byrne Arena—better known as the Meadowlands—was no longer so attractive. With only twenty-nine luxury boxes, it paled in comparison to the just-opened United Center in Chicago with its 219 suites, or the 104 corporate lodges planned for Boston's rapidly rising new rink. Claiming his team had lost $20 million and was on track to bleed $2 million more, even as they played to packed houses while on the march to the finals, McMullen was demanding that the New Jersey Sports & Exposition Authority sweeten his lease and pay for extensive renovations—or else.
Bettman disagreed with those who called such tactics blackmail. And he delivered the same message he had been peddling to governments in Quebec, Manitoba, and Hartford, Connecticut: Those who wanted to keep their NHL teams into the next century had better find a way to house them "appropriately." Then, during the finals, the commissioner went further, giving an interview in which he underlined the Devils' tenuous position as the third representative of the fourth most popular pro sport in the crowded New York market. But it was his pointed refusal to rule out a quick off-season relocation that really had people up in arms. The New Jersey Record gave its editorial page over to a snarky open letter, suggesting the NHL recruit Atlas Van Lines as a corporate sponsor and painting its boss as yet another out-of-touch New York suit. "For the sake of the league's stability, you should keep hockey clubs from picking up stakes whenever they smell a fresh greenback," lectured the paper. And at the rink the placards the fans were waving were even more cutting: "Nashville already has enough people without teeth."
So when Bettman stepped out onto the ice following the Devils' championship-clinching 5–2 victory, the leather-lunged New Jersey crowd let him have it, booing and gesturing—thumbs down or middle fingers up—as he presented Claude Lemieux with the Conn Smythe Trophy, and again when he handed off the Cup to Devils captain Scott Stevens. And that night, a tradition was born.
There's no doubt that being a lightning rod for fan discontent is part of the job description for commissioner of a major-league sport. The throng in Philadelphia jeered Bud Selig when he presented the Phillies with the World Series trophy in 2008—rather mildly given that football fans in the City of Brotherly Love once infamously booed Santa Claus during an Eagles halftime show. With an NFL lockout on the horizon in 2011, Roger Goodell got the business at the draft in New York's Radio City Music Hall, forced to stand uncomfortably at the podium until the invective and chants of "We want football! We want football!" petered out. David Stern—Bettman's mentor and head of the NBA for twenty-eight years and counting—figures he has been heckled in every city in the league, although Dallas fans seem to bear him particular animosity. Taking the extremely long view, the seventy year old recalls how everyone used to boo Harry Truman when the president was shown in newsreels at the movies. "I don't know why, but that's what you did," he says. "And I guess I came to believe that if you see the commissioner you boo, too-as the symbol of authority and real or imagined slights and policies you don't like." Even Bettman's half-brother, Jeffrey Pollack, the commissioner of the World Series of Poker for a time, knows what it's like to feel the fans' wrath: "It's an inherently political job, and public opinion will cover a range of positions."
And, of course, the NHL's head honcho has always been paid handsomely to endure the slings and arrows on behalf of his bosses, the thirty team owners. From his original contract at $1 million a season, to the extension that more than doubled his salary in 1995, to his post 2004–5 lockout pay of $3.7 million, Bettman's salary has grown along with the game. His latest deal, signed in the fall of 2010 and carrying him through to 2015, puts more than $7.5 million a year in his pocket, matching the season take of players like Rick Nash, Marian Gaborik, and Scott Gomez. It places Bettman firmly among the NHL's top twenty earners, but well behind Brad Richards's league-leading $12-million-a-year deal with the Rangers. Certainly, value for money compared with the studiously bland and operationally invisible Bud Selig and his $18.35-million yearly pay packet. (Goodell and Stern both make a little over $10 million a season.)
In one sense then, the stick the NHL commissioner takes is just part of the game: an amusement for the rabble who buy the tickets that ultimately pay his salary. And as with Ron Hextall, the tightly wound Flyers goalie who opposition fans used to be able to drive to distraction simply by sing-songing his family name, there is the added bonus that the abuse so clearly gets under Bettman's skin. Put him in front of a hostile hockey crowd and his shoulders tense, the smile starts to look more like he's baring his teeth, and his eyes flash annoyance. For, despite all his years of experience, he has never quite mastered the trick of nonchalance or sloughing it off as a joke. The closest he's come may have been at the 2008 entry draft in Ottawa, when he responded to the boo-birds by thanking the fans "for making us feel so welcome" and then choked off the audience's laughter with a grin and wink that would have terrified Hannibal Lecter. These days, his underlings tend to treat the problem proactively—limiting the commissioner's time at centre stage, or packaging him with beloved former players, brave military personnel, or victims of recent tragedies during the ceremonial faceoffs.
Still, it goes beyond the office or the fun to be had mocking the rich, famous, and powerful. With Bettman there's something more visceral at play. For many Canadians, who invest the game with all the mythic traits of strong and free nationalism, there's the distrust they feel is due to all Americans: a notion that no one born south of the border can truly understand or appreciate our shared passion. For the hardcore hockey types—including the media, who get paid to be in a perpetual frenzy about the sport's health—there's the conceit that only "insiders," steeped in lore and custom, know what it takes to make it work on and off the ice. And in the darker corners of barrooms and the internet, there's the contingent that simply doesn't like a Jewish lawyer...period.
Those born and bred haters need no excuse. But in his almost twenty years as NHL commissioner, Bettman has provided his other critics with plenty of ammunition: the tilt toward larger US markets and the Sunbelt, which hastened the demise of the Nordiques, Jets, and Whalers. Two lengthy player lockouts—one of which scrubbed an entire season—in the name of altering how the spoils of pro hockey are divided, with yet more labour strife looming for fall 2012. A litany of failed attempts to interest a wider American audience in the game, from glowing pucks to Mighty Ducks to commercials likening players to ancient gladiators. And the stubborn, fifteen-year-long fight to keep the Phoenix Coyotes-whose cumulative losses in the last decade alone top US$300 million-playing in the Arizona desert, despite the marked indifference of local fans and businesses.
It's the other side of the ledger that tends to get overlooked, though. How Bettman has built a league that routinely draws more fans to its games than the "powerhouse" National Basketball Association—on both sides of the border. Or how the NHL's annual revenues have grown from US$400 million to $3.3 billion on his watch. There's also the new ten-year, $2-billion television deal with NBC and its cable channels that finally has hockey getting paid and treated like a mainstream sport in the United States. His agreement with the International Olympic Committee has seen NHL dream teams participate in the last four Winter Games (although that streak may well come to an end in 2014). The addition of the outdoor Winter Classic was an instant success with audiences and now a major event on the sporting calendar. And what about the run of big-time sponsorship deals with the likes of Molson Coors, GEICO insurance, Reebok, and Cisco Systems? After years of economic uncertainty at the heart of the game, there are now seven financially thriving Canadian franchises (at least, as long as the dollar remains at par). And despite the doom prophets of the media, just one team relocated since 1997—the same number as in the NFL and Major League Baseball. Pro basketball, on the other hand, has moved three clubs over the same period. Hockey's not in as bad a shape as the fans sometimes wish.
As a rule, the NHL commissioner doesn't like to hang around once his duties are done. At the end of the 2011 finals in Vancouver, he awarded the Cup to the Bruins, passed on some congratulations and commiserations, and was in a chauffeured SUV on his way to the airport within minutes. The crowd inside Rogers Arena was unruly after the Canucks' loss, but those who had gathered in the downtown streets anticipating a celebration were far uglier. The rioting started at the intersection of Georgia and Hamilton, only a few blocks from the rink, with people flipping over porta-potties and lighting a vehicle on fire. An initial police charge was beaten back with rocks and bottles, and the youthful and heavily intoxicated mob responded with a celebratory verse of "O Canada." As groups moved throughout the downtown, smashing windows, looting stores, and setting more cars ablaze, those who had stuck around the rink for a post-game reception—including many VIPs and most of the NHL staff—were locked in for their own protection.
At the Flying Beaver in suburban Richmond, a bar and grill just beyond the airport fence that overlooks the mighty Fraser (slogan: Give'r on the River!), the mood was sombre. During the game, it had been standing room only, with fans in Canuck sweaters screaming and clapping thundersticks, and a siren occasionally wailing from behind the bar. Now, only a couple dozen patrons remained, nursing their beers and watching the riot unfold on the big-screen TVs.
The five guys who walked in wearing nice suits would have stood out at the best of times. But it was the little one who drew most of the attention. Less than an hour after people in the pub had been booing him every bit as lustily as the fans at the game, Gary Bettman was suddenly standing among them. "It was like one of those scenes in the movie where the bar goes all quiet and every head turned," he says. The private jet wasn't quite ready to head back to the airfield in New Jersey, so the commissioner, his deputy Bill Daly, spokesperson Frank Brown, NHL vice-president of marketing Brian Jennings, and a hulking ex-cop from league security, had gone in search of dinner.
There was a bit of grumbling at the bar, and a couple of regulars threw epithets over their shoulders as they weaved their way to the washroom. But mostly, people were excited. They approached politely to shake hands and seek autographs. Several had their pictures taken with Bettman. When the floor manager called the owner—who was stuck downtown among the mob—to pass on the celebrity sighting, he had her send over a couple rounds of the house specialty: espresso, vodka, Kahlua, and milk in a rocks glass—a.k.a. The Shaft.
Munching his meal while watching cop cars burn was a bit surreal, but otherwise it was a typical Canadian outing for the NHL commissioner. All that free-flowing abuse from the stands never seems to amount to much when people encounter him face to face. They're respectful, even friendly. It's the kind of thing that allows him to think that maybe, deep down inside, fans really do understand and appreciate him. And the salmon burger at the Flying Beaver was terrific.
When you're Gary Bettman, you take comfort wherever you can find it.