Since becoming the National Hockey League commissioner in 1993, Gary Bettman (No. 27 on the SI Power 50 List on page 48) has been at the center of three lockouts, one fully abandoned season and the target of nonstop criticism from our hockey loving neighbors to the North. While the lack of work stability may forever define Bettman’s career in the eyes of many, the exponential growth of the league under his reign cannot go unnoticed. In this week’s SPORTS ILLUSTRATED, Michael Farber wonders if Bettman, who has taken a $400 million league and turned it into $3.3 billion dollar powerhouse, is really as terrible as everyone says? Farber says:
“The balance sheet flatters a commissioner who landed hockey’s great white whale—an American network-TV contract. In 1993 Bettman returned the NHL to over-the-air TV in the U.S. for the first time since 1975 with a $155 million deal with Fox, and, in 2011, he upgraded with a 10-year, $2 billion deal from NBC. The NHL also expanded by four teams under Bettman.” (PAGE 55)
While the growth of the league has business analysts singing his praise, Canadians seem to hum a different tune. When Bettman moved two Canadian based teams, the Quebec Nordiques and Winnipeg Jets, in consecutive years to American cities, he alienated a fan base that loved his sport the most. Matters were only made worse when Bettman openly blocked the sale of NHL teams to Jim Balsillie, a Canadian telecommunications CEO who intended on uproot intended teams and move them to the south of Ontario.
“All Canadians share an opinion about hockey: Americans have sold out our game. . . . At the center is this Napoleonic figure,” said Kevin Tierney, a Canadian filmmaker who has never been discrete with his opinion on the commissioner. (PAGE #52)
But while the Canadians continue to vehemently deny Bettman their approval, he continues to work towards a league that not only includes Canadian teams and money, but also nurtures the delicate balance that is American and Canadian interest in hockey.
In order to maintain this balance, Harber writes that the commissioner assisted Canada in two significant ways:
1) Bettman gave the country its coveted seventh team when he returned the NHL to Winnipeg, moving the Thrashers from Atlanta in 2011 (“Right a wrong,” the commissioner called it); and
2) more significantly, he developed the Canadian Assistance Plan, spanning from 1995 to 2004, which transferred money to the Oilers, Flames, Senators and, briefly, the Canucks to offset the debilitating effects of the Canadian dollar, which at the time traded as low as $0.62. (PAGE 56)