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Aiden Miller

“Why the NHL’s hot, and the NBA’s not” was the infamous phrase printed by the now-defunct Sports Illustrated magazine after the New York Rangers’ historic Stanley Cup win against the Vancouver Canucks in June of 1994. Riding the coattails of that win—their first in 54 years (the 2nd longest Stanley Cup drought in history)—newly elected commissioner Gary Bettman and the National Hockey League (NHL) were touted as ‘saviors of hockey’ by reporters and media outlets across Canada and the United States. 

Many believed the young commissioner could usher in a new golden age for the National Hockey League at a time when many believed the National Basketball Association (NBA) was on the outs. Viewership numbers and revenue statistics reflect the exponential growth of the NHL in the wake of the 1994 Stanley Cup Final: NHL-licensed merchandise sales eclipsed one billion dollars, a 600% increase from 1989 to 1994 compared to the NBA, which only experienced a 333% increase over the same period. During the Final, viewership records for networks like CBC Sports and MSG Networks were smashed, with Game Seven of the series drawing a record 3.28 million cable viewers. The NHL’s video games series contributed to the league’s newfound success and popularity, selling over a million copies. In 2024, it’s abundantly clear that the NHL has come nowhere close to matching the NBA’s popularity and revenue. So what happened? Gary Bettman happened. Over the last 30-plus years, NHL Commissioner Gary Bettman has significantly tarnished the National Hockey League as a brand and has cultivated a toxic culture within the league and the sport itself.

Gary Bettman’s first misstep—and maybe his greatest—was the 1994-1995 NHL lockout and proceeding lockouts in 2004-05 and 2012-13. On the day of his inauguration for the commissionership in February of 1993, the New York Times reported that “Bettman’s mission is simple: Put a stop to labor unrest,” inadvertently foreshadowing the coming lockout in the 1994-95 season. For those unaware, a lockout is a work stoppage initiated by employers during a labor dispute with a company. In this case, Gary Bettman and the NHL decided to instigate a lockout against the union representing NHL players, the National Hockey League Players Association (NHLPA), for failing to agree to a collective bargaining agreement. As a result, the 1994-95 season was condensed from 82 games to 48 games, the shortest NHL season in 53 years. 

The lockout put a considerable dent in Bettman’s reputation. Popularity decreased among the general public. Sports media in Canada and the U.S. relentlessly reported on the most minute details of the ongoing labor dispute. As a result, many fans felt alienated by the league, leading many to become uninterested in the NHL, killing much of the momentum it had gained from the historic Stanley Cup Final just five months prior. Most importantly, the labor dispute created a grave schism between Bettman and the players, leading to further animosity between the parties in future collective bargaining. Even though the 1994-95 lockout had turned out to be only a blip on the radar, it set the stage for an all-out battle merely ten years later.

For the second time in only nine years, a lockout caused the NHL’s upcoming 2004-05 season to come to a grinding halt. Deep animosity between Gary Bettman and the NHLPA and continued arguments over the implementation of a salary cap had caused this one. Before the 2004-05 season started, Bettman and the league office wanted to implement “cost certainty,” a system that linked player salaries to the league’s revenue. The new salary system came in the wake of an NHL report that claimed only eleven profitable franchises league-wide and that the NHL had lost $273 million during the 2002-03 season. Bob Goodenow, the executive director of the NHLPA, called the idea of “cost certainty” a euphemism for a salary cap, the primary cause of the 1992 players strike and 1994-95 lockout. In an unprecedented turn of events, the two sides could not come to an agreement, and the entire season was canceled. The season’s cancellation marked the second time in history the Stanley Cup had not been awarded, the other being 1919 when a flu epidemic ended the Finals early. 

The cancellation of the 2004-05 NHL season sent ripples through the entire sports world. Many executives, players, and fans in every sport were shocked that a labor dispute between the league and its players could result in catastrophe like this. Worried about fan backlash and financial repercussions, the MLB, NFL, and NBA sought to strengthen their relationships with their respective player associations to avoid a fatal lockout like the one experienced by the NHL. 

The ramifications were more significant for the NHL itself. Many fans had grown infuriated by the actions of Bettman and Goodenow, leading to Goodenow resigning from his position as executive director of the NHLPA and Bettman becoming arguably the most disliked commissioner in sports. The lockdown made many NHL fans flock to other sports to fill the void the canceled season had left in their hearts. The Canadian Football League (CFL) and the NBA experienced increased viewership during their 2004-05 seasons. Teams were also economically devastated by the lockout, losing millions of dollars in revenue from ticket sales and TV ad revenue. To add insult to injury, the new labor agreement in the wake of the 04-05 lockout resulted in the controversial addition of the shootout and the draft lottery, which are still heavily criticized today. (I am one of those critics.)

In the eyes of the sports world, many now look at the NHL as the ‘little brother’ of the four major North American sports leagues. The NHL brand and leadership, specifically Bettman, has been significantly tarnished. When he was elected commissioner, Bettman was touted as a man who would end labor unrest in the league and allow the NHL to flourish in popularity. In his tenure, however, Bettman had engendered the most significant labor dispute in North American sporting history and tanked the popularity and revenue of the league he sought to save. 

The NHL lockouts of 1994-95 and 2004-05 are only one of the several chapters in Bettman’s book on how not to run a sports league. Another Bettman debacle that has had many fans on edge is the NHL’s participation in the Olympics or lack thereof. One of Bettman’s most popular moves as commissioner was allowing NHLers to participate in the 1998 Winter Olympics. In the Olympics prior, national teams typically consisted of junior hockey players and players from other international leagues. The decision was very popular amongst fans and players seeking to finally be able to represent their country on hockey’s biggest stage. Thus, NHLers participated in many more Olympic games after 1998: 2002, 2006, 2010, and 2014. 

In 2017, however, Bettman and the NHL made the unpopular decision to disallow players from participating in the 2018 Winter Olympics. The decision stemmed from the International Olympic Committee (IOC), which runs the Winter Olympics, refusing to pay a $14 million insurance fee to ensure that NHL clubs were adequately compensated for a player’s salary in case a player got injured in a tournament. Yet the failure of the IOC to pay the insurance fee was not the sole factor that prevented NHLers from participating in the Winter Olympics. Bettman, in a press conference held after the decision, stated that it was not a wise financial decision to participate in the Winter Olympics because “we [the NHL] kind of disappear for two weeks because historically the I.O.C. hasn’t even let us join in promoting our participation in the Olympics.” The decision not to participate in the Olympics may have been financially savvy for Bettman and the NHL, but like most of his judgment calls, he found many adversaries. Media members and fans alike (including yours truly, famously complaining on his Twitter account about hockey) claimed that the lack of NHL participation in the Winter Olympics stunted the growth of hockey as an international game and prevented many NHLers from achieving their dream of winning a gold medal. Like the lockouts, the situation looked terrible from the outside, garnering lots of negative publicity for the league, and once again tarnished the league’s image in the eyes of fans and media alike.

One of the most disturbing moments in Gary Bettman’s tenure as commissioner has to do with his failure to handle the Chicago Blackhawks’ sexual abuse scandal properly. In May of 2021, it was reported that an unknown Chicago Blackhawks player had accused the team’s video coach, Brad Aldrich, of sexual assault during the team’s Stanley Cup run in 2010. It eventually came out that Kyle Beach, a former hockey player, had accused Aldrich of sexual assault. According to a 107-page report, Blackhawks executives held a meeting about the sexual assault claims and decided not to investigate the matter any further. It was not until 2021, when the lawsuit by Beach was filed, that these allegations had been in the mainstream media. It’s also important to note that in 2013 Aldrich was found guilty of sexually assaulting a minor in junior hockey. It was clear that based on this conviction that the possibility of these allegations being true was high. When Beach tried to come out with his allegations in 2010, the Chicago Blackhawks director of human resources only gave him two options: resign from the team or face termination. 

In the wake of the lawsuit and report, both Blackhawks general manager Stan Bowman and now Florida Panthers coach Joel Quenneville, who at the time of the sexual assault was the coach of the Blackhawks, resigned from the team.  The only penalty the organization faced from Bettman and the league was a measly $2 million fine. I say measly because the Chicago Blackhawks are worth over $1.8 billion. Now where did Bettman go wrong? Bettman refused to permanently ban Quenneville and Bowman from ever holding another position in the league. Furthermore, Chicago executive Kevin Cheveldayoff was not disciplined for his role in the matter even after being found to have been present during the meeting. To add insult to injury, Bettman refused to take future draft picks away from the Blackhawks as a punishment for knowingly hiding sexual assault from the league. Eventually, this resulted in them drafting arguably the biggest hockey prospect first overall in the 2023 NHL Draft, just two years after the lawsuit became public. In 2024, the National Hockey League is the only major sports league that still does not have guidance on how to handle sexual assault cases. This is not the first instance of the NHL mishandling a sex scandal, and it will not be the last. If Bettman and the league do not address how to handle these situations, hockey culture will continue to delve into its more toxic side.

Bettman deserves credit where it is due. He has successfully expanded the NHL into broader regional markets like Las Vegas and Seattle, gaining new fans and more revenue for the league. Furthermore, Bettman has signed massive television deals with the likes of ESPN and NBC, allowing the NHL to grow the game and generate more revenue. However, we can not hide the fact that Gary Bettman has cultivated a toxic culture and has tarnished the National Hockey League’s reputation by continuously prolonging labor disputes, preventing NHLers from attending the Winter Olympics, and mishandling sexual assault cases that fall on top of his desk. Is it time for sports’ longest-tenured commissioner to finally hang up skates? 

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