NHL commissioner Gary Bettman got plenty wrong early on. But now, with Seattle managing partner David Bonderman's $3.3 billion fortune ranking only 12th among 32 principal NHL owners, Bettman's league is arguably the most stable it's ever been.
In my hometown of Montreal, NHL commissioner Gary Bettman is about as welcome as a bout of pneumonia on a sweltering summer day. And we never got many of those hot ones.
With apologies to Toronto – well, not really – Montreal and the province of Quebec remain the historical and cultural epicenter of hockey. You know Lester Patrick, who co-founded the Seattle Metropolitans a century ago? My former city produced him. Along with four dozen or so Stanley Cup championships won by teams like the Montreal Wanderers, Maroons, Shamrocks and others besides the Canadiens they don’t even bother putting up banners for.
And the locals provincewide have long been irked at Bettman for “Americanizing’’ their game. About as long as they’ve been steamed at his letting the Quebec Nordiques relocate to Colorado in 1995, then recently resisting their revival. The Nordiques played in Quebec City, home of the two-time Stanley Cup winning Bulldogs from 1912 and 1913 and where Hall of Famers such as Joe Malone, Guy Lafleur and Michel Goulet plied their trade.
The Quebec-wide anger grew last week, when Seattle was awarded the NHL’s 32nd franchise. Though the league hasn’t ruled out future expansion, none is imminent and the three-year-old, taxpayer-funded Centre Videotron in Quebec City will keep hosting junior games instead of NHL. Those junior games can sometimes outdraw what the stumbling Arizona Coyotes get, so you can understand the frustration.
But having lived on this side of the Canada-U.S. border for a dozen years now, I also understand Bettman’s vision. And can objectively appreciate what it has achieved.
While Bettman got plenty wrong early in his tenure, which began Feb. 1, 1993 — allowing in dubious owners and shifting franchises around left and right — he apparently learned from mistakes. Nowadays, landing an NHL franchise takes more than big talk and hockey love. It takes big bucks, a big market — at least, in terms of financial upside for the league — and a very big arena plan beyond a mere concept.
“Seattle will possess the three pillars essential to the success of any franchise – terrific and committed ownership, a thriving market and a state-of-the-art venue,’’ Bettman said in Sea Island, Ga., the day Seattle’s team was awarded. “Expansion, particularly a second expansion in three years, could only have been considered … because our league is stronger and more stable than it’s ever been.’’
And that stability — an elusive NHL goal over a half century of growth beyond its Original Six days — will likely be Bettman’s crowning legacy.
In this NHL universe, the impressive $3.3 billion estimated net worth of Seattle managing partner David Bonderman ranks 12th among 32 principal NHL owners. In fact, according to a study this year by Business Insider magazine, the NHL now has 23 owner billionaires.
And that’s astounding, given what the league used to be. Starting with the 1967-68 expansion that doubled it from six to 12 teams, the NHL often was so busy trying to grow that it forsook quality for quantity.
By the time the 1970s ended, the California Golden Seals, Atlanta Flames and Kansas City Scouts didn’t make it, while the Minnesota North Stars nearly folded as did the Pittsburgh Penguins and St. Louis Blues.
The 1979-80 “merger’’ with the World Hockey Association brought in the Nordiques, Edmonton Oilers, Hartford Whalers and Winnipeg Jets. Only the Oilers survived the 1990s and their owner, Peter Pocklington, had to sell off legend Wayne Gretzky in 1988 to keep them afloat. Pocklington eventually sold the Oilers, filed for bankruptcy protection and later was convicted of fraud.
That was the NHL that Bettman inherited.
It was a league that had universally feted Los Angeles Kings owner Bruce McNall, who acquired Gretzky from Pocklington and got his team to its first Stanley Cup Final the 1993 spring Bettman became commissioner. But McNall had built much of his overestimated fortune off stolen Roman antiquities. He was under federal investigation by 1994 and in 1997 was sentenced to nearly six years in prison for a $236 million scheme to defraud banks and the league.
McNall entered the league years before Bettman, though it was under the commissioner’s watch in 1997 that the Buffalo Sabres were bought by Adelphia founder John Rigas, who by 2002 would be indicted and later imprisoned for fraud.
Bettman was also in charge when con man John Spano somehow bought the New York Islanders in 1997 despite being worth only about $5 million. Spano was later sentenced to 71 months in prison and ordered to pay nearly $12 million in restitution to his victims, including the Islanders.
So, Bettman and the league have come a long way.
Where fraudster McNall once owned the Kings, today it’s Philip Anschutz and his $13.1 billion fortune. The Sabres formerly of Rigas now have the $4.3 billion ownership of Terrence Pegula. The Oilers are run by Daryl Katz and his $3 billion.
Two problem NHL franchises right now, the Coyotes and Ottawa Senators, both didn’t have new arenas ready to start off in the 1990s and later built them on cheap land too far away in the suburbs. The troubled Florida Panthers and Carolina Hurricanes also didn’t have new arenas ready when launched.
That’s one reason the league is delaying Seattle’s launch until 2021. Word is the KeyArena renovation’s general contractor, Skanska Hunt, will soon be replaced by M.A. Mortenson Co. after either walking out or getting pushed out over cost and timeline squabbles. Either way, the arena’s Oak View Group developer has work ahead to finalize the arena and go three-for-three in market, venue and ownership on the NHL’s stability scale.
Quebec City? Great fans. Fantastic arena. But a small market with a Canadian dollar worth 75 cents U.S. And a future owner in Quebecor media chieftain Pierre Karl-Peladeau whose reputed questionable decision-making and Quebec separatist political leanings make some NHL governors nervous. Upside? In the league’s eyes, the Canadiens already have much of the province’s NHL market cornered, leaving limited growth potential.
Certainly, not the financial upside of Seattle, Las Vegas or Houston.
Hey, I’m not making the rules. In my world, there’s a happy medium where cities that practically invented the game get another chance. The Canadiens-Nordiques rivalry was among the most riveting in sports and reviving the Jets in small-market Winnipeg has worked thus far.
But this is a demonstrably stabilized NHL from what Bettman took over in 1993. And if you surveyed anyone willing to bet money on its future, my guess is they’d take this version every time.
In this version, Seattle for now, not Quebec City, gets to prove its hockey love. And it’s up to the folks running our new franchise and remodeling KeyArena not to blow the golden opportunity they’ve received ahead of markets that believe hockey to be their birthright.