The NHL's Gary Bettman: Two minutes for delay of game

The NHL commissioner brought hockey to its knees, twice. Get ready for the third period.

Gary’s game

Photograph by Christopher Wahl

As talks between the NHL and its players’ association over a new collective bargaining agreement sputter and the owner-imposed Sept. 15 deadline looms, another hockey lockout seems all but certain. It will be the sport’s third work stoppage in the past 18 years, although the issues are the same as always: “money and envy,” writes Jonathon Gatehouse in The Instigator: How Gary Bettman Remade the League and Changed the Game Forever. After winning the toughest salary cap in all of pro sports the last time around, team owners are now pushing for further gains—redefining what counts as revenue, limiting the length of contracts and, above all, reducing the players’ share of the pie. Despite record revenues of $3.3 billion last season, the men who run the game claim that the economics of hockey still don’t work. Donald Fehr, the new executive director of the NHLPA and the man who crushed the resolve of Major League Baseball owners, is openly skeptical. And the issues are so complex that they may well take months to negotiate—once the two sides return to the table. Bettman, who will celebrate his 20th anniversary in the NHL’s top job this winter, is facing a formidable foe. But the commissioner shouldn’t be underestimated. Now the single most powerful figure in the history of pro hockey, he’s a man who drew some sharp lessons from his rocky start in the job. And when push comes to shove, he’s more than capable of dealing them out too. Fans trying to make sense of the present dispute best look back at what really happened in 1994 and 2005.

Exclusive excerpt

As 1994’s training camps wound down and the league’s deadline loomed, the players began to chafe. And the message they decided to send out to NHL fans across North America was anything but subtle. In Montreal, Habs defenceman Mathieu Schneider skated onto the ice for practice with a piece of white stick tape plastered to the front of his helmet on which he’d scrawled the words Bettman sucks. Joe Sakic, the quiet young captain of the Quebec Nordiques, suggested the new commissioner “knows nothing about hockey and doesn’t care.” Cam Neely, sitting in the Boston dressing room in his long underwear and an NHLPA ball cap, predicted a dire future for any league that would dare to lock out its players: “They’re not shooting themselves in the foot, they’re shooting themselves in the head as far as I’m concerned.” And even Wayne Gretzky, a man so averse to controversy that he invited Alan Thicke to emcee his wedding, weighed in. Wearing a suit, tie and sour face, he met the media at the LA Kings’ practice facility to make it clear that if the season didn’t start on time, there would only be one man to blame. “I’ve played this game for 30 years, and for someone to come along who has only been in our sport for one year and tell us that we’re not going to play is very frustrating and extremely disappointing,” the Great One said. “I’ve worked too damn hard to help push our sport … Hopefully it doesn’t all come down because one person wants to change the format.”

It was Chris Chelios who grabbed the headlines, however, with some inelegant ad libs to the carefully scripted vitriol. Just off the ice and still sweating, the Blackhawks D-man glowered into the cameras and gave Gary Bettman a taste of the menace with which he played. Not only was the former NBA executive out of his depth, he was a little Napoleon who couldn’t even recognize the game’s biggest stars when they weren’t wearing their names on their backs, said Chelios. He should be worried about the safety of his family and his own well-being: “He’s going to affect a lot of people, and some crazed fan—or maybe even a player, who knows—is going to take things into their own hands. And figure they’re going to get him out of the way and maybe things will get settled. You’d hate to see something like that happen, but he took the job.”

The relationship, such as it was, between the players and the owners’ front man had been unravelling for months. In early January, Bettman had confirmed suspicions about his hiring—his main task was indeed to bring a basketball-style salary cap to hockey. The NHL didn’t just want to link compensation to revenue, it was also seeking a firm limit on rookie pay, to do away with guaranteed contracts and the arbitration system, as well as to cut roster sizes and reduce the amount of money it handed out for the playoffs from $9 million to $2 million. Then in August, the NHL commissioner delivered the bargaining equivalent of a face wash, announcing his intention to roll back perks and benefits when the existing deal expired in September. The players were still welcome to attend training camp, but they would have to pay for their own flights, medical and disability insurance and meals—moves that would apparently save the league’s cash-strapped franchises between $20 million and $40 million. And to top it off, Bettman let it be known that he wasn’t going to start the regular season as scheduled on Oct. 1 unless a new labour deal was in place. “We need a player-employment system that avoids making this a league of haves and have-nots,” he wrote in a letter to the union. “Unless we develop that type of system, our recent success will not solve our economic and competitive problems.”

As the inevitable lockout dragged through the fall, tempers flared at the negotiating table. At a session in Buffalo—an easy flight from Manhattan and quick drive from Toronto—Bettman himself threw a tantrum, screaming about the unreasonableness of his opponents before stomping out of the room. One of the NHLPA representatives wonders to this day whether it was real or a tactic—an attempt to channel his former boss at the NBA, David Stern, a famed and feared yeller: “It didn’t really work. It was almost like he was trying it on for size. It was kind of comical, actually.”

Bettman’s strength was more the cutting remark, or the menace behind the cold smile. Marty McSorley, who brought some muscle to the players’ bargaining committee, still bristles at the memory of how the commissioner refused to call the players anything but “labour” during the talks. Although the man with the fourth-most penalty minutes in NHL history did manage to goad Bettman to anger once. The topic under discussion was league discipline, and McSorley, a frequent recipient, suggested it was a conflict of interest for someone employed by the owners to sit in judgment over a player. “He asked me if I was questioning his integrity, and I made an offhand remark about the lack thereof,” says the former tough guy.

Cracks eventually appeared in the players’ solidarity. During one tense NHLPA conference call, Larry Murphy, the Penguins’ player rep, was taken to task for suggesting he liked the sound of the owners’ latest proposal. “Hey, Murph, where’s your balls?” McSorley barked. “I don’t think with my balls, Marty,” was the retort. But as it turned out, it was the fault lines among the owners that were more profound. After the first week of the lockout, Bettman started getting phone calls from team executives who were already desperate to get back on the ice. The league backed away from a salary cap, or even the luxury tax model, a couple of weeks before Christmas, agreeing to head down parallel negotiating tracks—one with their preferred system and one without. And when bargaining resumed after the holiday, a breakthrough seemed imminent.

But Bettman and Bob Goodenow, the head of the NHLPA, would still need to sit down and make the difficult trade-offs. Hired to bust heads only two years before, the commissioner’s brief was now to broker a compromise with an opponent who was just as stubborn as he was. And having locked the players out, any failure would be his alone.

It wasn’t until Jan. 9, less than 24 hours from the league’s deadline, that the make-or-break bargaining session was convened. The meeting at the Four Seasons hotel in Manhattan started at 10:30 a.m., with the commissioner tabling what the Bruins’ Harry Sinden had called the owners’ “final, final, final, final, final offer.” Progress was fitful, and it was getting close to midnight when Bettman and Goodenow repaired to Shun Lee Palace, a Chinese restaurant that advertises itself as the ideal location for Upper East Side socialites, to hash the last details out over dinner. But things dragged on long after the egg rolls got cold. It was 6 a.m. when both negotiating teams, red-eyed and rumpled, met up in Goodenow’s hotel suite for what was supposed to be one last examination of the terms. The list was read aloud: an escalating cap on rookie salaries, beginning at US$850,000; check. The continuation of the existing arbitration system, but with a new right for owners to walk away from decisions they didn’t like up to three times every two years; check. A six-year term, with both sides retaining the right to reopen the deal after the 1997-98 season; check. Then came the provisions about free agency, and that’s where things went sideways. “Gary thought they had agreed on one thing, Bob thought they had agreed on another,” John McCambridge, one of the NHLPA lawyers, recounts. “People were getting pretty hot. The whole deal almost blew sky high.” What sounded to outsiders like a trifling matter—whether the age of unrestricted free agency would drop from 32 to 31 after the first year of the new agreement or the third—now threatened to derail the entire enterprise.

Bettman was eventually convinced to take Goodenow’s version of the terms to the owners for a vote, but had barely begun to spell out the details via conference call when Abe Pollin, the owner of the Washington Capitals, cut him off, demanding to know who had given him the authority to depart from the ultra-final proposal they had presented a couple of days before. The real estate developer, who would later change the name of his NBA franchise from the Bullets to the Wizards because of his concerns about gun violence in DC, was anything but peaceable. He moved to reject the settlement and send a message back to the players telling them to accept the league’s past best offer . . . or else. “That’s the dumbest motion I’ve ever heard,” responded the Flyers’ Ed Snider. Chicago’s Bill Wirtz jumped into the fray supporting Pollin, as did Detroit’s Mike Ilitch, Marcel Aubut in Quebec City and Winnipeg’s Barry Shenkarow. The screaming lasted for close to two hours, and when a vote was finally taken, the owners rejected their commissioner’s deal 14 to 12. (Although someone from Bettman’s camp made sure to share all the gory details with the reporters waiting outside, ensuring that fans knew just who was standing in the way of a settlement. “I can’t believe my partners would do this,” the Capitals’ owner complained. “I think this is schlock.”)

It was Goodenow who ultimately saved the season, agreeing to give the NHL two more years of control over the fate of its 32-year-olds. When the revised deal came back to the board of governors later that evening, it passed 19 to 7. The dissenters were Chicago, Detroit, Washington, Boston, New Jersey, Quebec and Winnipeg. After 103 days, the NHL’s first lockout was at an end.

The initial reviews suggested the owners had triumphed, but the union was confident that the war was going to be won in the dry legal details. For the NHLPA felt it had discovered the secret to dealing with Bettman: feed his ego as much as it could take until he fell into blissful self-reverie. “He definitely has the smartest-boy-in-the-room syndrome,” says another person who was involved in the negotiations. “It’s so obvious when he’s trying to trick you. He’s not dumb, but it’s the people who work for him who call him a genius.” During negotiations, Goodenow’s side had played to the commissioner’s vanity by suggesting that he was bright enough to succeed where others had failed and make the NHL work as a free market, without the crutch of a cap. And such attempts at manipulation continued even after the deal was done.

In June 1997, with the NHL’s first Olympics in Nagano on the horizon, Bettman came to the players’ association seeking an extension of the CBA to ensure that the anticipated post-Games bump to business wouldn’t be overshadowed by labour strife the following summer (not to mention his plans to expand the league by four more teams). The union had an opinion—they wanted to prolong the deal for as long as possible—but they kept it quiet and instead asked the commissioner to walk them through the numbers: “We said we’re not really capable of evaluating these business matters,” says the same source. “We’d like to be educated by you. So, he gets all puffed up and gives us a big lecture and we ended up with what we wanted.”

Bettman says he did learn a crucial lesson from the labour disruption and its fallout: “You have to make sure that your constituents, your clients, however you want to characterize them, are telling you everything you need to know.” He had presented his negotiating strategy to the board of governors and received unanimous support. But once the lockout began, solidarity proved to be a mirage. “I kind of knew early on that not all of the owners were in a position to go the distance.”

The preparations for war began in the early part of 2000, more than four-and-a-half years before the deal was set to expire. Broad strategy sessions were held in the commissioner’s office at NHL headquarters, where Bettman brought together the in-house and outside lawyers to start refining the league’s demands, and to try to predict how the NHLPA would attempt to parry them. The meetings were sporadic at first, but two years out from the September 15, 2004, end of the CBA, they became weekly fixtures in everyone’s calendar—10 a.m. on Tuesday in Gary’s office. Sometimes they would last just half an hour, other times they could drag on for an hour or two, spinning off the week’s events and the latest rumours. They discussed the business model they were shooting for, and the ones they might be willing to settle upon. They crafted the message that would be sold to the press and the fans. They discussed the nuances of labour law in the United States and Canada. But mostly they obsessed about how to get the better of Bob Goodenow this time around. Bettman had learned from the spanking that Wirtz and the other hard-liners had administered to him in the final hours of the 1995 negotiations. This time, the owners needed to be united and to follow his lead without question. In the months before talks began, he personally visited each and every one of them to outline the strategy, and drive home the fact that it might well cost the NHL a season—or two—to get the deal they wanted. Few of the owners expressed any reservations. And just to make sure there would be no loss of will when the bills came due, each club was required to obtain a new $10-million line of credit and file the papers with the league. There would also be a steep price to pay for departing from the company line—it was agreed that any owner who divulged details of internal NHL discussions or divisions would be subject to a fine of up to $1 million to be levied at Bettman’s sole discretion.

Negotiations opened just after New Year’s 2003 with a meeting between Goodenow and Bettman in New York City. Having the main antagonists from the last lockout face off across the table was clearly not going to be a recipe for success. So a decision was made to embark on a different course: a series of informal, without-prejudice meetings where the two sides could freely explore all the options for a new collective bargaining agreement. The NHLPA would be represented by their deputy director, Ted Saskin, and outside lawyer John McCambridge. For the NHL, it would be Bob Batterman and Bettman’s major-domo, Bill Daly. The secret talks, dubbed Project Blue Fin after a seafood and sushi restaurant in the W Hotel in Times Square, the site of the initial meeting, were focused on finding a compromise. The mood was cordial and no subject was verboten.

There were close to a dozen sessions over four months, and it seemed like progress was being made, but then in early June, Goodenow and Bettman joined the group and things started to fall apart. In the presence of the main combatants, all the bad blood from the first lockout suddenly flowed back into the room, and winning became a lot more important than bargaining. The positions quickly hardened. The league wanted a firm ceiling on the amount of money going to the players, and the NHLPA wouldn’t budge. “Goodenow was inflexible. He was a prick. And he didn’t think he had to do anything because he didn’t think there was a snowball’s chance in hell that the owners would hang together,” recalls another person who was involved on the NHL side. “He wasn’t going anywhere. He wasn’t making any concessions.”

When the lockout officially began in mid-September, everyone involved knew it was going to be a drawn-out affair. But as it entered the fourth month, there was growing unease among the players. In early December, the union invited the NHL back to the table and made a stunning proposal—a 24 per cent rollback on all existing contracts coupled with more concessions on rookie salaries and arbitration plus a luxury tax. Goodenow walked the media through the details with a PowerPoint presentation and suggested an agreement was now close at hand. He was wrong. Bettman rejected the deal and countered with an offer that treated the rollback as a starting point, piling a cap and other draconian conditions on top. Goodenow was apoplectic. The union had been beaten with its olive branch.

In early February, Bettman finally set a drop-dead date, indicating that if a deal wasn’t completed by mid-month he would cancel the season. On Feb. 16 he pulled the trigger, becoming the first, and so far only, big-league commissioner to scrub an entire season of play. “We are truly sorry,” was all he told the fans.

In April, the players came back to the table with a new proposal, a floor and a ceiling for team payrolls, tied to revenue. It was something the owners felt they could live with, and negotiations gathered steam. In May and June, the two sides met more than 30 times, mostly at the law offices of Skadden, Arps, on the 38th floor of a building that overlooks Times Square and offers commanding views in all directions. By the end of the process, the conference rooms provided to each side were so beaten up, the rugs so stained with takeout food, that they had to be completely redecorated. Bettman was there constantly, while the one person who was rarely present was Goodenow. And even when he did stop in, he made a point of not attending any of the meetings with the NHL side. The union’s very public, no-cap-under-any-circumstances stand had been his strategic decision, and when the players began to balk at their limited options it had provoked a rift with their long-time executive director. The players were now calling the shots.

The deal was finally concluded on July 13 during an all-night session at the league offices, on the heels of 10 straight days of bargaining. After 301 days, the NHL was back in business. The agreement, which called for a $39-million-per-team salary ceiling for the 2005-2006 season and a $22-million floor, coupled with the 24 per cent rollback, was greeted with more relief than enthusiasm by the players, who voted 87 per cent in favour. The owners gave it their unanimous approval. Bettman made some brief remarks, noting the enormous cost of the “new partnership” and vowing to repay the fans by giving them all the fun they could handle. Goodenow marked the end of the battle, and a deal he did not endorse, with a short press release. On July 28, he called a news conference in Toronto to announce he was stepping down. His next three successors did not last very long. Bettman’s crushing lockout victory had left opponents in complete disarray.

Heading into another round of negotiations in the fall of 2012, Bettman is cagey about his 2005 triumph. “The fact is that we did what we had to do at the time,” he says. It was the fans—not the owners—who were the driving force, demanding a rebalancing of the league, he contends. “Our research showed they were supportive of what we were doing because they wanted the problems fixed. They didn’t want a Band-Aid. They wanted better competitive balance and better economics in terms of franchise health and stability.” The commissioner skates around the question of whether he really would have kept the NHL idle for a second season just to get a salary cap. But bluff or not, it was a potent threat.

And when play finally resumed in the fall of 2005, there was no denying the obvious: hockey was now Gary Bettman’s game.

From The Instigator: How Gary Bettman Remade the League and Changed the Game Forever by Jonathon Gatehouse. Copyright © Jonathon Gatehouse, 2012. Reprinted with permission of Penguin Group (Canada).

Jonathon Gatehouse talks about his new book and the long history of labour troubles between Bettman and NHL players. See this week’s iPad issue.