NEW YORK — There is usually another guest at the table when Gary Bettman and his wife, Shelli, go out to dinner with other couples during the NHL playoffs.
Friends come to accept the glow of the TV screen set up so Bettman can keep an eye on games, ready to go from enjoying a nice meal to running a multibillion-dollar business and back again. The commissioner of a storied league with 24 teams in the United States and seven in Canada doesn’t put work on hold for life or vice versa. When his 11-year-old grandson, Matthew, wanted to hang out with him in Tampa during All-Star weekend, he brought him along for meetings.
“They all blend together because I’m never off,” Bettman said. “It’s all part of what I do and who I am.”
For 25 years, Bettman has overseen the growth of the NHL from $437 million in annual revenue to nearly $5 billion, guiding the league into and out of work stoppages and expanding hockey’s reach to places that never seemed a fit for the fastest game on ice.
The Stanley Cup Final opens Monday in Las Vegas, where Bettman had a guiding hand in the expansion process that yielded the Golden Knights and led to the most successful inaugural season in league history. When he was there in November 2016 for the unveiling of the team name, Bettman was booed by the crowd and could not have cared less.
“No, no, keep the booing,” he told the crowd. “That proves you’re now an NHL city.”
Once perhaps an unlikely leader for a game with its roots north of the border, the 65-year-old lawyer from Queens who got his start in the NBA has become one of the most powerful and long-lasting influences in professional sports. More than two decades into the job, Bettman still feels energized by the thrill of work — and the sugar supplied by dark chocolate Milky Way candy bars doesn’t hurt.
He isn’t going anywhere, either.
“I think he’s the best that we could do,” said Jeremy Jacobs, the Boston Bruins owner and board of governors chairman. “I mean, there are things that might irritate you from time to time about him. But you know where his heart and soul is, he’s always interested in the game, the improvement of the game.”
It hasn’t always been pretty. Bettman has had a role in three lockouts, the relocation of five franchises, has repeatedly denied any link between head injuries and the degenerative brain disease CTE, and recently refused to allow NHL players to go to the Olympics after doing so five times. Confident in his decisions and willing to accept the ramifications to his reputation and legacy, Bettman has earned respect — sometimes begrudged — and made some enemies while serving longer than the other three major sports commissioners combined.
“He’s a force, so he’s not going to roll over because somebody thinks it’s a good idea,” said John Collins, a former NHL chief operating officer. “He’s very principled and he sticks up for his principles. And those principles could be business principles or they could be just kind of moral principles and he’ll fight for that. That’s the way he lives his life, and that’s the way he runs the league.”
Part of Bettman’s work involves keeping 31 ownership groups and markets on the same page. Former Maple Leaf Sports & Entertainment President and CEO Richard Peddie said Bettman bringing almost every owner into the league has its benefits.
“They’re all there because Gary ultimately blessed them, so I think they always have some kind of IOUs,” Peddie said. “I don’t mean that in a disingenuous or unfair way. But he was the gatekeeper, so he has that going for him.”
Bettman, who was NBA general counsel under then-Commissioner David Stern and a senior vice president before starting at the NHL on Feb. 1, 1993, orchestrates things in such a way that there’s rarely public dissent. Washington Capitals owner Ted Leonsis has watched how Bettman builds a united front among owners.
“He’ll pre-brief and sell some of the key owners, if you will, and he backchannels and he’ll literally call and brief every owner personally on a subject so that when you come to the meeting, you’re briefed, you’ve asked your questions,” Leonsis said. “Because he puts in the work and he has the data and his competence is not questioned in any way and he does have the data, he’s able to land the planes, if you will, with efficiency.”
Bettman acknowledges some events during his tenure were not of his making. To this day, he insists moving the Quebec Nordiques to Colorado and the original Winnipeg Jets to Arizona had to be done, and that the 2004-05 lockout that wiped out an entire season was necessary to ensure the long-term health of the league.
“There are things I wish might not have happened,” Bettman said. “Work stoppages are a good example. The fact is I knew what we needed, and we had to get it. And if it took a long time to ultimately convince the Players’ Association that this was in everybody’s best interest, I wish it could’ve happened sooner, but it didn’t.”
There are some in hockey who can’t forgive Bettman for the lockouts, most recently one in 2012-13. There are others like Peddie who’d rather consider them part of an entire body of work that includes overseeing expansion into the Sun Belt.
“It’s putting hockey where it hasn’t traditionally been,” deputy commissioner Bill Daly said. “That’s proven successful. … I think his legacy of having franchises there and putting hockey in nontraditional markets and making it relevant in nontraditional markets kind of exceeds the business success of the teams.”
The deaths of enforcers Derek Boogaard and Bob Probert brought CTE and hockey to the forefront, and the NHL is currently facing a federal lawsuit from more than 100 former players who allege it had the resources to better prevent head trauma, failed to properly warn players of such risks and promoted violent play. In a July 31, 2015, deposition, Bettman said: “There’s no medical or scientific certainty that concussions lead to CTE.”
Bettman said the NHL was a leader on concussion studies, testing and solutions as far back as the 1990s. He also said he believes the lawsuit has no merit.
“People can embrace that position, understand it, dismiss it — that’ll be individual opinions,” he said. “But I have to do what I have to do on behalf of the game, and it starts with player safety being a priority.”
Bettman is paid more than $9 million annually and with that is willing to take the brunt of responsibility for the NHL’s good, bad and ugly. He doesn’t have too many fans at the Players’ Association, but owners line up behind him based on his work in raising franchise values, negotiating U.S. and Canadian TV deals and steering the sport through trouble.
“I think the league is lucky to have had him as long as they’ve had,” said Collins, who worked under Bettman for nine years. “That role for any sport is a really tough one and it’s really tough when you’re in it for a long time because it’s inevitable that you collect a lot of dents.”
The dents don’t keep Bettman up at night, but he works so much that he’ll sleep at most 6 1/2 hours on the weekend and often much less. When he returned home at 2 a.m. from a playoff game this spring, he walked 13-year-old golden doodle Lola and 4-year-old Teddy before bed, slept under three hours and postponed working out with a trainer to leave the house at 6:15 for an 8 a.m. television appearance.
“I don’t get a lot of sleep and I don’t need a lot of sleep,” Bettman said in his office overlooking Sixth Avenue that has a table-top hockey game, books of the sport’s history and plenty of family photos. “There are probably certain days where people in my family will think I have narcolepsy, because if I sit down I might fall asleep for five or 10 minutes. But what I do is energizing, so that keeps me going. And I eat a lot of candy.”
Bettman and Daly spent two hours earlier this week poring over a draft of the 2018-19 schedule while having Chinese food for lunch — a less glamorous part of the job than handing out the Stanley Cup each June but part of the gig.
So is planning for the future, even though Bettman is under contract through 2022 and shows no signs of slowing down. Daly, who’s 54, thinks Bettman will work long enough that owners should look to someone younger as the next commissioner, but his boss is more than comfortable handing him the reins if anything went wrong.