Say this for the most powerful man in the NHL: At least Gary Bettman hasn't engineered his own induction into the Hall of Fame. He didn't start the "Sun Belt strategy" either.
As the third NHL lockout charges into its fourth month, hockey fans have an ever-growing list of reasons to loathe Bettman and the job he's done as NHL commissioner. What many don't realize, or more likely don't remember, is that his immediate predecessor was worse.
In fact, Gil Stein's performance in his brief time as interim NHL president practically begged for the selection and installation of a strong leader like Bettman.
A Timeless Theme: Owners Need Help Helping Themselves
Bettman was named the first (and still only) commissioner in NHL history for one main reason: Years of weak league "presidents" proved incapable of leading the owners and keeping them from hurting themselves. While Bettman's tenure certainly hasn't put an end to that problem -- hello Craig Leipold, hello decade-plus player contracts -- the creation of the commissioner's office at least created a non-team-affiliated position with the power to tell the owners "no."
In 1992, NHL owners were dissatisfied with former president John Ziegler's feeble performance during the NHLPA strike shortly before the playoffs. They initiated his ouster, named longtime general counsel Gil Stein interim president, and began the search for their first commissioner.
Unfortunately, even in just over a year at the helm, Stein could not avoid dragging the league to embarrassment.
Many fans and reporters blame Bettman for the NHL's "SunBelt expansion" into the Southern United States, even though the process itself began in 1967 when the league placed two teams in California, and in fact only one southern expansion team has been granted under Bettman's watched.
Phil Esposito -- an NHL legend who is no fan of Stein -- was on XM's NHL Network Radio recently when he segued into the story of how two teams were awarded shortly before Bettman took over as commissioner. His anger is still palpable 20 years later.
"Oh, Stein and Bruce McNall," Esposito fumed. "That man [Stein] told me to sit down. We were promised we wouldn't expand again until 1996, and here they were awarding a team to Miami. They just wanted the expansion money."
The league had already added three teams (San Jose Sharks, Ottawa Senators, Tampa Bay Lightning) in the previous two seasons. Now it was adding two more.
Esposito, who managed the Lightning at the time, was promised the opportunity to develop fans and a TV market for the NHL's first Florida team. Incredibly, at a winter board of governors meeting during the Lightning's first year, Stein announced the addition of two new expansion franchises -- the teams that would become the Florida Panthers and Mighty Ducks of Anaheim. (To assuage the Lightning, the Florida franchise was originally referred to as "South Florida," but that designation was soon dropped.)
The NHL chased the money, paying no mind to the needs of its nascent franchise. With the sport looking like a hot ticket, the league happily accepted $50 million expansion fees from Disney and from Wayne Huizenga, owner of Blockbuster Video (yes, renting VHS tapes was once a thriving business).
The kicker? Half of the Ducks' $50 million expansion fee would go to Stein's ally Bruce McNall, the owner of the Los Angeles Kings, for invasion of territorial rights. (Within a few years, McNall would end up bankrupt and jailed for bank and wire fraud. No wonder he wanted the money.)
That's Hall of Fame Material Right There
The Stein-McNall connection would be a big part of Stein's other major embarrassment as president (Among other laguhers, Stein also instituted suspending players for practice instead of games, a man after Allen Iverson's heart): During his brief tenure, Stein engineered his own election to the Hockey Hall of Fame. McNall was head of the board of governors at the time, and the stories are conflicted, but the upshot is Stein summarily removed three members of the HOF board, named five new ones, and leaned on McNall to submit a long recommendation of Stein's completely unmerited candidacy.
Upon assuming his position as commissioner, Gary Bettman inherited this scandal and got a quick introduction into the gong show league he was joining. In one of his first projects on the job, Bettman had to retain outside lawyers to investigate the circumstances behind Stein's election. (Stein's election was overturned.)
For his part in 20 years on the job, Bettman has welcomed poor (sometimes fraudulent) owners, thrown a lot of good money after bad and displayed enough arrogance to make the notoriously cock-sure Stein look meek.
But the combination of Ziegler and Stein reminds us why the NHL owners brought Bettman on, and why he continues to hold the position to this day: They wanted someone who could more strongly deal with the NHLPA. They wanted someone who had the power and smarts to tell them "no" when their interests conflicted. And they wanted someone who wouldn't subject the league to public embarrassment as Stein did.
I guess two out of three ain't bad.