CHICAGO – As the Stanley Cup championship banner climbed toward the rafters on a raucous opening night, Gary Bettman allowed himself a brief smile. On this night, at least, he looked every bit the man in complete command of his sport, instead of the accidental commissioner he's sometimes portrayed as.
Just a year ago, no one dared dream the NHL would have a champion to celebrate, let alone be as prosperous and popular as it is. The owners had locked out the players for the third time during Bettman's stewardship and threatened to let the arenas sit dark until their demands were met.
What followed instead was a deal that ensured labor peace for a decade, and then a regular season, that while shortened from 82 games to 48, was one of the league's best ever, and finally, a Stanley Cup for the ages. With Chicago beating fellow "Original Six" member Boston in six games — three went to overtime — TV ratings went through the roof.
"Our hope was that we would come back strong, but at the time, that couldn't be our short-term expectations," Bettman said during a wide-ranging interview Tuesday with The Associated Press. "We kept focusing on the long term. In hindsight, we were not only thrilled and excited about the outcome, but also relieved.
"And I say relieved," he added, "because we never take anything for granted, especially our fans."
Some of those fans who came to see the Blackhawks begin their title defense against the Washington Capitals booed Bettman twice during the pregame ceremony. Yet the quality of play in the NHL has never been higher and rarely has it been more entertaining. Revenue is up, players' salaries are way up and in NBC, the league has finally hooked up with a TV partner just as invested in the product. Plus, after selling three of the league's troubled franchises — Phoenix, New Jersey and Florida — in the last six weeks, the NHL is stable and secure enough to throw in a few new wrinkles.
This season brings realignment, a break for the Olympics and a half-dozen variations on the "Winter Classic" — outdoor games in venues as far-flung as Yankee Stadium and Dodger Stadium. That seems like more than enough innovation for one season, but Bettman said the lesson he's learned throughout his tenure is never stand pat.
"We always start with the belief that whatever we're doing, do more of everything," he said.
That ambition has been the source of much of the displeasure that hard-core fans have heaped on Bettman. They blamed his fight for cost certainty for the work stoppages and belittled his grand plan to put the game on an equal footing with the other major pro sports by expanding into warmer climates where — as the joke goes — the locals' familiarity with ice begins and ends with a drink glass.
"I had a fairly clear vision of the direction we needed to go, but it's like turning around an aircraft carrier. You can't do it right away," Bettman said, reflecting on his 20 years in charge.
"It takes, time, commitment, perseverance and sometimes, the need to make short-term decisions that are painful, but are essential to make the right long-term decisions. I feel like we've done a lot of that."
He gets the chance to test that theory again four months down the road during the Olympics.
"It's a balancing act. We have history and a tradition in the international arena, moreso than any of the North American sports. Our players hail from 25 countries, they love to go back and have done it since they were teenagers," he said. "Being on the world stage has always been important to them ... and to have the best playing against the best is irresistible."
Yet Bettman hardly needs reminding about the downside.
"The NFL is finally gone. It's our time on the stage. It's the stretch run of the regular season and we disappear for more than two weeks," he sighed.
"When you're in Vancouver or Salt Lake City, there's less travel and you're in the North American TV time zone. That's a real benefit. But when you're in far-away places — you're nine time zones ahead of the East Coast (in Sochi, Russia) and the games are on between 4 in the morning and 2 p.m., the benefit is not quite so clear."
Those fans who still deride Bettman's lack of a "real" hockey background have to concede he's grown into the role. They find it tougher to doubt his smarts, and especially his commitment to hockey's long-term health. Even his gambles are looking better.
Roots have begun to sprout in some of those non-traditional markets the league ventured into — California sent the fourth-most players to one of the league's recent development camps, trailing only long-time hockey hotbeds Minnesota, Michigan and New York — and an ever-widening circle of international players will likely ensure a reliable stockpile of talent for years to come.
The one question Bettman didn't have to think long about was rating his own job performance.
"I don't grade myself. I'll leave that to others. In some respects," he said finally, "it's always going to be a work in progress."
Jim Litke is a national sports columnist for The Associated Press. Write to him at firstname.lastname@example.org