The last time Gary Bettman grabbed a mike and stepped onto center ice at Staples Center, something happened that took him by surprise: There was no cascade of booing to drown him out.
The NHL’s commissioner, a consistent target of fan distain over the last two decades, almost sheepishly handed the Stanley Cup over to Kings captain Dustin Brown on that June evening last summer, and actually appeared to be enjoying himself.
“He was loose. He was happy. And for once, the presentation of the chalice wasn’t overshadowed by the fans’ hatred of the man giving it away,” wrote author Jonathan Gatehouse, whose new biography, “The Instigator: How Gary Bettman Remade the NHL and Changed the Game Forever,” (Triumph Books, $24.95, 344 pages) couldn’t have been better timed.
With Bettman authorizing the latest lockout of the players as a new Collective Bargaining Agreement is slowly being worked out, already wiping out the first two weeks of the regular season away that for the Kings was scheduled to start Friday against the N.Y. Rangers with a banner-raising ceremony, now’s as good a time as any examine the man perceived to be the greatest roadblock in getting the game back on track.
At least, if you’re not one of the league’s 30 owners who pay him well.
Next time Bettman shows up in L.A., wanna bet there’s a different reaction?
(A video montage by Yahoo!Sports PuckDaddy.com shows how Bettman’s reception in previous Cup ceremonies wasn’t handled much the same way it was in L.A.):
This is a hat trick of sorts for Bettman, whose previous labor negotiation strategy has led to the complete annihilation of the 2004-05 season, and a 48-game shortened schedule in ’94-’95.
And wouldn’t you know – if it wasn’t for another Kings owner, the notorious Bruce McNall, convincing Bettman to leave his NBA front-office post as commissioner David Stern’s legal eagle and take this job in the winter of 1992, we might not even be in this place today.
McNall cashed out not long after the hiring. Bettman has somehow stuck around and become very rich.
Gatehouse, a Toronto-based business writer for Canadian newsmagazine Maclean’s, explains what readers may extract from his crisp, pointed research of Bettman at a time when the league suddenly finds itself at another sort of tipping point, much of it at the expense of a Kings’ formal coronation:
Photo by Reuters
Gary Bettman speaks to the media during the recent NHL lockout, in New York on Sept. 13.
Q: Based on what you know about Bettman’s way of doing things, how do you see this NHL lockout playing out? Is the NHL Players Association new leader, Donald Fehr, the Bettman mirror image that you describe in the book, going to drag this out past Jan. 1 and maybe beyond?
A: I think Bettman mapped out every move in these negotiations well in advance, just like the last time. And knowing Fehr, he’s probably done exactly the same thing. So, really this is going to be about who is best able to keep their side from flinching — it’s a game of chicken. If it was up to just these two guys, they would fight to their dying breaths. But thankfully, it’s not.
Q: Do you believe Bettman will be all that concerned about a whole season wiping out knowing fans came back after the last season was canceled?
A: Maybe I’m too optimistic, but I really find it hard to believe that this is going to last an entire season. There’s too much money on the table. And both sides already know what the final deal is going to look like — something closer to a 50/50 revenue split like they’ve now got in the NFL and NBA. Now it’s a matter of finding a mutually acceptable way of getting there.
Q: From the L.A. perspective, the Kings just win the Cup, Hollywood thinks it reinvented the game, parties all summer long … now it’s a bummer the regular season opener planned for a week from Friday is put off. Do you think those newbie L.A. fans who didn’t boo Bettman after Game 6 of the Finals last June will really let him have it this time when he’s back on the ice to present the Cup again to start the 2012-13 season (if there is one)? Or if they were to read this, might they cut him some slack?
A: You know the fans in L.A. a lot better than me, but I assume they’re just as frustrated and angry as anyone else in the league. And Gary’s there to be hated. That’s his job. The owners pay him $7.8 million a year to suck up all the anger and outrage, so they can still go out to dinner in their home cities and not get punched in the face.
Q: I’ll bet a lot of L.A. fans didn’t know about the McNall connection to hiring Bettman. Do you think you’ve enlightened them a bit, and also quoting McNall near the end of the book in having a different tone now, saying that “Gary isn’t the league”?
A: No question, Gary Bettman owes his job to Bruce McNall — he was the guy who “discovered” him, and convinced the other owners that he was the right man back in 1992. As to whether Bettman is still the right guy, Bruce seems to flip back and forth. For a long time he’s been bitter about how he was sort of written out of the NHL story after his downfall. But as you know, the Kings and the league were pretty good to him during the playoff run. He even sent me a picture of him and Dustin Brown with the Cup.
Q: Going forward, does he seem to be the right guy to “carry on” and lead the league another 20 years?
A: Listen, if Gary Bettman wins this lockout — which I’m convinced he will–he’s emperor for life. Whether he’s the right guy to carry on will be immaterial. The owners respect money, and he’s made them plenty.
Q: What prompted the idea to do a bio on Bettman? I imagine the process starting a year or so earlier, knowing there’d be a labor issue approaching and he’d be a targeted person again? Was that the thinking?
A: The idea came about initially because it dawned on me that this winter will mark Bettman’s 20th anniversary as NHL commissioner and nobody had really taken a step back and tried to evaluate the impact he has had on pro hockey. And when you think about it, it’s not hard to conclude that he’s become the most influential–and powerful–figure the game has ever known. But at the time I started researching the book, more than 18 months ago, it wasn’t so clear that a lockout was looming. At that point, Bettman was still talking about “tweaking” the current arrangement with the players, not blowing it up. The timing just ended up being great for me, and lousy for the fans.
Q: What caused the word ‘instigator’ to come up as the title to describe him? That’s really eye-drawing.
A: It just seemed to fit. He’s instigated so many changes to the league during his time as commissioner–on and off the ice. And in that very specific hockey sense of the word, he’s the guy who gets paid by the owners to drop the gloves and start the fights.
Q: Did you know him very well before embarking on this?
A: I had interviewed him a couple of time for Maclean’s, the magazine I work for, but I only knew him in the way that the fans know him — as this sort of aloof, often disdainful figure. A guy who seems to carry a pretty big chip on his shoulder.
Q: He seemed to give you decent access. How do you think he viewed having a book done on him? He seems to be pretty thick skinned, but you point out that it probably came from his upbringing.
A: I was very upfront with him about what I was trying to do, which was assess the way the game has changed over the past 20 years under his leadership, both positively and negatively. I think he was receptive to the idea because I was able to convince him that I would give him a fair shake. And most of the time, in Canada at least, that doesn’t happen — there’s just too much baggage with the past lockouts, and lost franchises. So he was cooperative, and gave me some time. And most importantly he didn’t stand in my way when I reached out to his friends, former colleagues, and other people in the game, because you can be sure that everyone called or emailed him before they ever agreed to sit down with me. As for the thick-skinned part, I think he’s a lot more sensitive to the criticism and the way he’s portrayed than he lets on. And I certainly know that his family and friends are bothered by it. But I haven’t heard his reaction to the book yet.
Q: Did your opinion of him change as you were doing this project, for better or worse? You avoid injecting any opinion of your own into the book and really lay it out there for readers to decide.
A: I came to respect, and even admire him in some ways. He’s a smart guy and he has a really difficult job — there’s always a crisis in the NHL, and a million people who think he’s handling it in exactly the worst possible way. But as a fan myself, I also see that other side. So I tried to keep it balanced. Still, whatever way a reader comes at it, I think there’s plenty in this book to reinforce his or her prejudices.
Q: So what do you want readers to take away most about Bettman after reading this?
A: That’s a good question. I guess it’s to have a better understanding of how much influence Bettman has had on hockey — the product on the ice, the way it’s marketed and broadcast, even where it’s played. It’s really Gary’s game now. At a time like this, people tend get focused on the labor stuff to the exclusion of everything else, but his legacy runs much, much deeper than the salary cap.
More reviews on the book:
= From The Sporting News (linked here).
= From the Montreal Gazette (linked here)
= From the Winnipeg Free Press (linked here).
= From the Toronto Star (linked here)
= A Q-and-A from the New York Times (linked here)