Hockey purists might be grumbling about the upcoming Stanley Cup Final because it will have nothing but Sun Belt teams involved. It suits Gary Bettman just fine.
Bettman was honored by the Sports Business Journal on Wednesday with a lifetime achievement award for the NHL’s growth during his 30 years as commissioner, from a business that generated $437 million in revenue before he took over to nearly $6 billion now.
Fittingly, it comes with conference finalists in Las Vegas, Dallas, South Florida and North Carolina, given how crucial Sun Belt expansion and growing the league south of the Canadian border is to Bettman’s legacy.
“It’s more about the footprint: You do better in terms of interest at all levels of the game where you have franchises,” Bettman said. “Creating a more national footprint, both in Canada and in the U.S., is important for growing the game.”
The NHL had a presence in just 13 U.S. markets (three in the New York area) in the final full season before Bettman took over and it wasn’t televised nationally. Over the past three decades, that has ballooned to 25 American teams in 22 markets from coast to coast.
One of the challenges, Bettman said, was demonstrating to TV networks that the NHL had “a compelling national story.” This postseason features a final four in cities that did not have teams before Bettman got the job.
The Florida Panthers joined the league in 1993, months after Bettman came over from his post at the NBA, at about the same time the Stars moved from Minnesota to Dallas. Raleigh, North Carolina, got a team later in the 1990s when the Hartford Whalers became the Carolina Hurricanes. And the Vegas Golden Knights are only in their sixth season of existence after becoming the 31st franchise through expansion.
In between, teams were added in Nashville and Columbus, relocated to Colorado and Arizona, and rebirthed in Minnesota and Winnipeg. Along the way, Bettman has ruffled plenty of feathers and upset fans in places that lost teams, leaning on a lesson he learned from the late NBA Commissioner David Stern to make decisions, big and small, for the right reasons.
“You do your homework, you make as an informed a decision as you can and you don’t do it for political reasons because political and popular reasons can change in the moment,” he said. “You got to do what you think is right because if you’re wrong, at least you did it because you thought it was right. And that’s how you sleep at night.”
Bettman prefers the term “newer markets” over “nontraditional” to describe many of those places, including Tampa Bay, which has become a model franchise and won the Stanley Cup three times since joining the league in 1992. He points out that having teams in new markets leads to more rinks being built and the game growing beyond some of the traditional North American hockey hotbeds.
That’s partly why Bettman is basking in the quality of play, even if the ratings for this year’s final might not be as high as a year where powerhouse markets like Boston, New York, Chicago, Toronto or Los Angeles are involved.
“What’s more important to me is the game: Is it exciting? Is it entertaining? Is it compelling?” Bettman said. “Some markets will always be bigger than others, but to me it’s more about the game and how entertaining it is.”
The phrase, “The game on the ice has never been better” is a staple of Bettman’s state of the league addresses over the years, and it will likely come up again when he speaks before Game 1 of the Stanley Cup Final next week.
Now 70 — he’ll turn 71 on June 2 — Bettman isn’t ready to retire but says he’s “not going to do this into my 80s.” He said he sees a time in the not-too-distant future when he’ll want to take a long trip with his wife, Shelli, to a place they haven’t been and spend more time with his seven grandchildren.
“At some point, when you have a public-facing job, you need to say, ‘It’s time to move to somebody younger,’” Bettman said. “There’s some other things I may want to spend my time doing.”