After 20 years of booing, Gary Bettman still standing
(Reuters) - Gary Bettman will mark 20 years as commissioner of the National Hockey League (NHL) on Friday and on YouTube fans have posted a 97 second appraisal of his performance.
It is an unflattering montage chronicling two often stormy decades of Bettman awarding the Stanley Cup to the winning team, backed by a soundtrack of rancorous booing and occasional chants of "Bettman sucks."
A member of the exclusive commissioner's club, Bettman's counterparts - the National Football League's Roger Goodell, National Basketball Association's David Stern and Major League Baseball's Bud Selig - will also not likely win many popularity contests among their various constituencies.
But the commissioners concede that Bettman's job requires a thick skin to shield him from the wrath of agitated hockey fans.
"He's got a tough job, there is a little more required of Gary because of a matter of practice the Canadian media seems to kill him," Stern told Reuters. "That is a skill set that I'm not sure who else could take it but him.
"Roger (Goodell) has the same thing when he says the New Orleans Saints have to be sanctioned. I get it on discipline matters and lockouts but it seems that the harshest is saved for Gary. ... As a result he has had to put several coats of armor on his shield."
Bettman, a smallish man with elfin features and a purposeful walk, is an anonymous figure who can slip in and out of the NHL headquarters in Manhattan unnoticed by most passerby.
But in Canada, he is as recognizable as Prime Minister and avid hockey fan Stephen Harper. In the game's spiritual home, Bettman is like Darth Vader, an outsider who has taken Canada's passion and stomped on their hockey-loving hearts.
"If it (the jeers) does (hurt him) he has never shown it. Even when he lets his guard down," said Stern. "He laughs it off.
"Now whether that is a defensive mechanism or not ..."
During his 20 years in charge Bettman has crafted a complicated legacy.
He has overseen expansion to 30 teams from 24 and watched attendance, television ratings, sponsorships and revenues skyrocket. He also brought the NHL into the Winter Olympics and expanded the league's international footprint by taking regular season games to Europe.
But he has also stubbornly held firm on expansion into non-traditional southern markets, refusing to concede defeat even as franchises like the troubled league-owned Phoenix Coyotes sink into a sea of red ink.
To hockey fans, however, Bettman is likely to be remembered as the commissioner who dragged them through three lockouts, including one that wiped out the entire 2004-05 season.
While fans have largely forgiven greedy owners and players for their part in the labor disputes, Bettman remains public enemy No. 1 in many NHL arenas across North America.
Players, who have seen their average annual salary jump to $2.5 million from about $500,000 during the Bettman era, have also expressed little love for their commissioner.
Stern, who negotiated his own labor deal last year, said he watched with interest as Bettman went head-to-head with NHL Players' Association chief Donald Fehr through four months of collective bargaining before reaching a deal in mid-January to salvage a condensed season.
"It is a kind of Kabuki that you have to go through to demonstrate your conviction," explained Stern. "It is almost like a script that you get on how to waste time or put in the right amount of time until you get to a deal.
"It is all part of the Kabuki and Gary can Kabuki with the best."
Stern would know better than most the qualities Bettman brings to the commissioner's table.
An Ivy League educated lawyer, Bettman was snatched out of the NBA front office where he had risen through the ranks to senior vice president before signing on as the NHL's first commissioner on February 1, 1993.
Described as a tireless worker with a self-deprecating sense of humor, Bettman is often hammered for being smug and aloof.
While he seldom responds to criticism, Bettman is known to pay close attention to what is being written about him and the league he oversees.
A married father of three, Bettman is also an intensely private man, rarely offering glimpses into his personal life.
"He is a great father, I've been with him as he has driven his kids to different practices and activities," said Stern. "He is devoted husband and caring.
"And he has a vulnerability to him that is a positive.
"He has been commissioner for 20 years, it's a long time and he is still remarkably good natured and vibrant."
Since signing his original five-year deal, Bettman has had his contract renewed three times and is paid handsomely, pulling in a reported annual salary of over $7 million.
With a new collective bargaining agreement in place that will guarantee labor peace for at least eight years, Bettman made it clear he still has much work to do, throwing cold water on rumors that his time as commissioner was near an end.
"I'm looking forward to continuing to grow this game, both on and off the ice, as we have over the last 20 years," Bettman said. "I think the opportunities are great and I'm excited to be a part of them."
(Reporting by Steve Keating in Toronto; Editing by Frank Pingue)