Six new members of the Hockey Hall of Fame were inducted in ceremonies Monday in Toronto, and it’s one of the deeper and more inclusive classes in memory. There are NHL legends Martin Brodeur and Martin St. Louis; Soviet superstar Alexander Yakushev, one of the greatest players in the world; Jayna Hefford, a four-time Olympic gold medalist for Canada and just the sixth woman in the hall; Willie O’Ree, the NHL’s first black player and a tireless voice for diversity in the sport. The sixth member of the class, however, stands out for the simple fact that he’s still in the job that got him elected. And he’s not planning on going anywhere anytime soon.
“I don’t love being commissioner as much as I used to, I actually love it even more,” Gary Bettman said. “So for those who think I might be getting ready to retire, forget it.”
Bettman, NHL commissioner since 1993, deserves to be in the Hall of Fame if just for the undeniable fact that you can’t tell the story of hockey without him. For better or for worse. Monday’s ceremony was perhaps Bettman’s first public appearance in decades where he wasn’t booed, though he managed to turn part of his speech into a self-roast anyway.
Bettman is by far North America’s longest-serving sports commissioner, and no league has changed so much—or shot itself in the dick so many times—as the NHL under his reign. There have been three separate lockouts, which canceled an entire season and large chunks of two others. That is an indelible stain, though the owners—Bettman’s bosses—would tell you there were necessary for the league to become the economic powerhouse it is today. (There’s good debate to be had over how much blame a commissioner deserves for the will and actions of the owners, and you can have the exact same debate over whether he deserves any of the credit, either. I have no simple answers for either.)
What’s indisputable is that the NHL is thriving. In Bettman’s 25 years at the helm, it has gone from 24 teams to 31, with a 32nd franchise almost certainly coming to Seattle within the next two or three years. The league’s revenues have jumped from $400 million to $4.5 billion. It has expanded to the Sun Belt, the continent’s fastest growing region, which has come with true successes in some markets and, finally, a footprint wide enough to warrant a respectable national TV deal. Every season sees games played outdoors in massive stadiums, and in Europe and even Asia. Has the league grown because of Bettman, or in spite of him? Impossible to answer. But it has grown.
With those successes have come failures. Fans in Quebec City, Hartford, and Atlanta have lost franchises under Bettman’s watch, and we can all name a couple of warm-weather cities that could or should be next. The league, not entirely to blame, has failed to find a regular and sustainable international tournament for its best players. And Bettman’s and the NHL’s conduct through the concussion and CTE coverups and lawsuits has been nothing short of shameful.
All of these, good and bad, are Bettman’s sizable and still-growing works. A portrait in the Hall of Fame is a minor thing by comparison. The NHL as we know it is Gary Bettman’s legacy.