TORONTO — Gary Bettman isn’t getting booed this weekend. Or at least if he does, the folks doing the catcalling will be in on the joke.
Friday began a run of four days where Bettman will be celebrated. Imagine that. The NHL commissioner took charge in 1993 and 25 years later, he has earned induction into the Hockey Hall of Fame.
And what emotion will that spark from hockey fans everywhere?
(Now, before you cue your outrage that Bettman isn’t even retired yet, I remind you that former NHL president Clarence Campbell was inducted in his 20th year and successor John Ziegler got in during his 10th. This is not baseball in terms of making sitting commissioners wait.)
The booing of Bettman has become a long-running joke in league circles by this point, even though it started among some fans as a vitriolic reaction to lockouts and others on this side of the border with the perception that Bettman was anti-Canadian. Doesn’t matter if it’s the draft, the all-star game or the presentations of the Conn Smythe Trophy and Stanley Cup.
Doesn’t matter what city he’s in either. Bettman gets crushed.
Bettman loves the booing now. It’s almost his signature. He’s like Bobby Orr getting booed every time he touched the puck in opposing rinks in the 1970s. Or Wayne Gretzky many times in the 80s. Fans won’t admit it but there’s some modicum of respect in all the noise.
When Bettman got pounded the night Vegas was announcing its team name and logo, he said it proved the NHL was putting a team in a hockey town. During the 2017 draft in Chicago, he told United Center fans, “You can do better.” They obliged.
Five months ago in Dallas, Bettman was trying to run a pre-draft ceremony for the lives lost in the bus crash of the Humboldt Broncos junior team when fans in American Airlines Center were giving him the business. He asked them to stop so he could run the ceremony and they did. When it was over, he smiled and told them they could resume what they wanted to do.
Even when the booing began in the mid-90s, Bettman said he wasn’t offended at all.
“It means they knew I was there,” he said Friday in the Esso Great Hall after getting his official Hall ring. “Look, our fans are passionate and that’s great. It means they care. It means they’re focused on the game. It means they know what’s going on and you couldn’t ask anything more from your fans.
“If you follow the exploits of the booing over the last few Stanley Cup presentations and the last few drafts, I’ve even been known to egg it on. It’s fine. It’s all part of the routine.”
The Hall of Fame is a legacy moment and, in most cases, the legacy is already written. Bettman is unusual in that he’s still in the position he’s being honored for and has lots on his agenda.
“We want to continue to grow the game at all levels,” he said. “We want to continue to have world-class competitions. We want to continue to make a difference in people’s lives by the work the league and the clubs and players do in the community. We want to continue to have this game have an impact on every conceivable platform it can.”
Bettman wants to keep growing the NHL internationally, be it through exhibition and regular-season games, the World Cup or what he termed a “Ryder-Cup” style tournament. As for the Olympics, headed next to Beijing in 2022, don’t ask.
“We don’t have to spend this gathering talking about the pros and cons,” said Bettman.
As for Bettman’s legacy, there’s that item about three lockouts and the canceled 2004-05 season. But if you’re going to focus on that, you should focus on the way he’s kept troubled franchises afloat. Fans in Arizona, Pittsburgh, Ottawa and, yes, Buffalo should always have in the back of their minds that he supported the franchises in times of trouble.
During the Sabres’ bankruptcy days in the early 2000s, Bettman and the NHL kept the team afloat during the post-Rigas crisis days. They operated it and didn’t let it get sold off to a place like Hamilton. Once Tom Golisano stepped forward, the Sabres were safe.
Ask anyone who was there then. Bettman believed in Buffalo when plenty of others in the league no longer did.
“I tend to be more forward-thinking,” he said. “I know I’ve been doing this now more than 25 years and I suppose on this weekend people are going to be talking about legacy. I’ve never really focused on my legacy. I’m honored to be here but I’m not sure I do it in terms of what my accomplishments may or may not have been. I leave that for others to say.”
Bettman will get his chance at the microphone Monday night when he’s officially inducted. He said when he initially got the call about his induction, his wife asked, “Does this mean they expect you to retire?”
Bettman said he’s pondering the words in his speech and how he wants to represent the game. But he’s not immune to the same emotion players and coaches feel at this moment.
“It actually seems surreal because this is an honor I’ve never really focused on,” he said. “To be included with the people that are in this amazing hall, as many times as I’ve been part of the ceremony and seen it, it doesn’t seem real now.”
Bettman is 66 now. Owners have never had the kind of wealth they do now. It seems reasonable to think he would have at least another 5-10 years in him if he wants to stick around.
“As long as the owners are happy, as long as I wake up every morning energized and excited about what I do, which is how I wake up every morning, I’m not thinking about it at all,” he said. “Obviously at some point everything runs its course including age, but it’s not anything I’m focused on right now.”
That’s probably good news for the league and its teams. As for the fans, their reaction to that statement is predictable. Same thing they say every time Bettman speaks.