NHL Commissioner Gary Bettman is fully comfortable with being the dean of those in charge of major North American sports. Being the oldest — well, that is a different story.
On the eve of his 22nd season as hockey's head man, Bettman is on the verge of being the longest tenured commissioner, although he feels he has held that distinction for several years. Once Bud Selig steps down as baseball commissioner, Bettman will have more time in his job than the leaders in MLB, the NFL and the NBA, where Bettman got his start under longtime Commissioner David Stern.
Selig's tenure began as acting commissioner in September 1992 — five months before Bettman took over as the NHL's first commissioner. Selig held the interim title until he fully took the job in July 1998.
"I already am the longest," Bettman said during an interview with The Associated Press on Tuesday, one day before the season begins. "But I will be the oldest."
Ah, yes. No dispute there. Selig is 80, Bettman is 62 and in his estimation still spry for his age.
"That is a little bit harder to get your arms around," he said of being the oldest commissioner. "I still consider myself a young man."
Bettman has a long list of accomplishments in the NHL, presiding over extraordinary growth and expansion — not just in the number of teams (30), but into new markets like the American South. He insists there are no current plans to add more teams.
His two decades in the job have been filled with plenty of problems, too, most notably three lockouts, including one that forced the cancellation of the entire 2004-05 season. That wasn't a proud moment, but he says with certainty that it was a necessary price to pay to get salaries in line so every team could compete and survive. The NHL now has a hard salary cap.
Bettman bristled when asked if he feels the NHL has recovered from the damage caused by the lost season.
"We were fully recovered the first season," he said. "We had record attendance and record revenues, and the game on the ice was better when we came back. The reason we recovered as well as we did is our fans, thankfully, understood what we were doing and were supportive. The game and the stability of our franchises had severe problems and we addressed them. We didn't do it with a Band-Aid. Unfortunately it took a year to persuade the players' association what needed to be done."
The NHL hasn't experienced any sort of crisis with domestic violence among its players, a problem the NFL is grappling with. Bettman chalks that up to his league's dedication to education and counseling.
"We're always self-reviewing," said Bettman, who added that he hasn't spoken to NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell in a few months. "We've been engaged on issues such as domestic violence for more than a decade, in terms of having our security department and our behavioral health counselors working with the players team by team in presentations every season to make sure there is an understanding of these important issues. Overwhelmingly, if you look at the conduct of our players, it is something that we can all be proud of."
A more pressing issue are concussions: how to prevent them and how to make sure players who sustain them receive proper medical attention and take necessary time to recover before returning to the ice. According to data from STATS, there were 53 concussions during 2013-14 regular season, a sharp decline from the 78 reported during the league's last full season two years ago. A protocol is in place to diagnose concussions and treat them. Failure to comply leaves teams subject to league fines.
"We're constantly monitoring and self-evaluating everything that is going on," Bettman said. "If we don't think the concussion protocols are working to our satisfaction, then we will make adjustments."
Getting players to report their injuries also goes a long way to tackling the issue. Being the first league to implement baseline testing has helped greatly.
"We have spent a lot of time changing the culture and engaging in education with the players' association in order to get players comfortable that they need to self-report because it's better for their recovery if they've had a concussion and they stop playing," Bettman said.
The commissioner is comfortable with the safety of the game, and he has a grandson who has played mite hockey for three years. He expressed no real complaints as he readied for the new season, with four games scheduled Wednesday.
"We are coming off a series of successive seasons where each one was better and more successful than the one before," Bettman said. "Last season may have been the best in the history of the league."
That culminated in the Kings' winning their second Cup title in three seasons, and they did it in a big-market matchup with the Eastern Conference champion New York Rangers, who hadn't been to the finals since ending their 54-year championship drought in 1994. Bettman made plans to be in Los Angeles on Wednesday when the Kings raise their championship banner.
Although Bettman never picks favorites, getting big city clubs to the championship round certainly does bring more eyes to the games.
"It's more about what takes place on the ice," he said. "Having L.A. and New York as the two markets competing in the Stanley Cup finals got a lot of attention, but we happen to have markets that are even stronger hockey markets, whether it's some of the Canadian markets, or it's Detroit, or Boston or Chicago. None of that matters if what you see on the ice isn't interesting, exciting, entertaining and compelling."
So what keeps him up at night after all these years?
"There is never any one thing," Bettman said. "We have to make sure that it's all working both on and off the ice — making sure that all our business initiatives are moving forward both at the national level and at the club level."
He said he never thought once about going back to the NBA, where Adam Silver has taken over as commissioner.
"Never. This is where I wanted to be. This is where I want to be," Bettman said. "I haven't thought about the NBA in 22 years that I have been here."