2018 Hockey Hall of Fame inductee Gary Bettman: 'I hope they remember that the game got bigger, that it got stronger'

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Gary Bettman (Getty Images)

TORONTO — Gary Bettman was at a luncheon to honor the career of Frank Brown — the then-vice president of NHL communications — when a 416 area code popped up on his phone. The NHL’s commissioner answered the call with the hope the selection committee was phoning to inform him of Willie O’Ree’s induction into the Hockey Hall of Fame.

Instead, Bettman was surprised to hear the voices of Lanny McDonald and John Davidson delivering the news he was being inducted into the builders’ category.

“I was not expecting this call, at all,” Bettman said after receiving his ring at the Hockey Hall of Fame’s Great Hall on Friday.

“I had gotten wind of the fact that the selection committee had already met, but I was focused on whether or not Willie was going to get in because last season was the 60th anniversary of him coming into the NHL and it was a big milestone year.”

O’Ree will join Bettman in the builders’ category at Monday’s formal ceremony along with Jayna Hefford, Martin St. Louis, Alexander Yakushev and Martin Brodeur in the players’ category.

Of course, Bettman does go into the Hall amid criticism with some believing the timing is not right as he is still active in his role.

However, a precedent was set long ago when former NHL presidents Clarence Campbell was inducted 11 years before he retired and John Ziegler Jr. was enshrined 10 years into his tenure.

Under Bettman’s watch, the league has grown from 24 teams to 31 with a 32nd team on the horizon and revenues have expanded from $437 million in 1993-94 to nearly $5 billion in 2017-18.

“I hope they remember that the game got bigger, that it got stronger,” Bettman said of his contributions. “It grew on on all levels, particularly at the grassroots, and the values that our game brings makes a difference in communities and people’s lives in a positive way.”

A graduate of Cornell University and New York University School of Law, Bettman served as the senior vice president and general counsel to the NBA prior to being hired as NHL commissioner in December 1992.

But the 66-year-old fell in love with the game at a young age.

“My earliest memory was being at a game at the old Madison Square Garden, at a Rangers game,” Bettman recalled. “I must’ve been, I don’t know, 10 or 12 years old. I think it was my uncle [who took me]. I remember the excitement and the energy in the air.”

A native of Queens, N.Y., Bettman credits former NBA commissioner David Stern for preparing him for his current role.

“David was a mentor, short and simple,” he said. “I spent a number of years practicing law with him and then I was the general counsel and chief legal officer for more than a decade so he taught me the ropes of how to conduct yourself when you’re trying to run a sports business.

“I had spent a dozen years watching how he did the job, and I understand you’ve got to do what you think is right.”

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Bettman officially took over as commissioner on Feb. 1, 1993, and awarded the Stanley Cup for the first time to the Montreal Canadiens that June.  

Despite holding the position for 25 years, Bettman admits it’s not something he grew up aspiring to be.

“You don’t dream of having this job because there aren’t very many commissioner’s jobs,” he noted. “I had worked for a dozen years at a high level in the NBA when the NHL was conducting its search. I’d been a hockey fan from a young age [and] I became a more passionate fan during my years at Cornell, but the notion that somehow, even if I was on the shortlist, that I would survive the search that the Board of Governors was doing, you can’t predict or expect anything like that.”

Growth will always be part of Bettman’s legacy, whether it’s revenue, the number of teams or player salaries, but expansion to Europe isn’t a front-burner issue for him.

“Deputy commissioner Bill Daly was quoted as saying the only way to do that practically is to create a division,” Bettman said. “That’s not something we’re focused on, particularly because there are very important, strong leagues in countries that have hockey interests. We’re not looking to compete with them; we’re looking to work with them to grow the game.”

Speaking of Europe, Bettman also responded to KHL president Dmitry Chernyshenko’s previous suggestion that the Stanley Cup champion and Gagarin Cup winners should face off in an exhibition.  

“It’s hard to do because we don’t know who the Stanley Cup champion is until June, the summer is short and then most our teams, a year in advance, make their preseason arrangements,” he explained. “Having said that, we’re always intrigued by international possibilities so I never rule anything out.”

When Bettman got the call from the Hall in June, his wife, Shelli, jokingly asked whether it was a sign for her husband to retire. Bettman will turn 67 before he hands over the Stanley Cup to the 2019 champion but says he hasn’t thought of stepping down. 

“I don’t know. As long 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 [retirement] at all,” he said. 

“Obviously at some point, everything runs its course, including age, but it’s not anything that I’m focused on right now.”