Gary Bettman took office as the NHL’s first-ever commissioner on Feb. 1, 1993. It’s been an eventful three decades since.
League owners tapped Bettman — a New York-born, Ivy League-educated lawyer who previously served as the NBA’s general counsel and senior vice president — to succeed outgoing president Gil Stein at a critical juncture for potential NHL growth. They believed Bettman could help the then 24-team league expand further into U.S. markets (particularly in southern states), broker more lucrative media deals and even stabilize labor relations.
Bettman has done all that, and then some.
Under his watch, the NHL has become a 32-club operation in which most teams bring in more revenue than ever before. There also have been periods of instability, from multiple lockouts to unpopular decisions the league is dealing with even now. Bettman has been a polarizing presence through it all, an executive regularly drowned out by booing fans each time he makes a public appearance.
It’s a reaction that Bettman seems to enjoy.
His impact on the NHL is impossible to ignore. Bettman’s place in league history was solidified when the Hockey Hall of Fame inducted him as a “builder” with the class of 2018, and as of Feb. 2, he’ll be the longest-serving commissioner of the four major men’s professional sports leagues in North America.
Here’s a look at the highs and lows of Bettman’s tenure, capturing how the league has changed during his 30-year tenure.
Sept. 1994: The NHL makes TV deal with Fox
Bettman has overseen four major television network moves for the NHL during his tenure. The first was a five-year deal with Fox that started in the 1994-95 season, giving the league regular exposure on a broadcast network for the first time in nearly 20 years. It was a bid to reach a wider — and younger — audience, one that yielded such innovations as cartoon robots and the Glow Puck, which added a CGI blue haze and an occasional comet tail to the puck on-screen. (Initially a failure, the technology was later successfully applied to NASCAR and NFL broadcasts.)
A deal with ABC and longtime cable partner ESPN followed from 1999-2004. Bettman’s next bold move was a post-lockout partnership with NBC and the Outdoor Life Network, which later became Versus and then NBCSN. That partnership lasted until 2021, when the NHL went back to a multi-network deal with TNT and ABC/ESPN that included the league’s first U.S. streaming deal with ESPN+. — Greg Wyshynski
1994-95: 103-day lockout pushes season start to Jan. 1995
Cost controls were at the center of the NHL’s first work stoppage on Bettman’s watch, which reduced the 1994-95 season to 48 games. The owners framed the key cost-control proposal as a luxury tax. The players viewed it as a salary cap. In the end, the players held ranks while some large-market teams lost their resolve to see a full season potentially canceled.
There would be no overarching salary controls, although the owners did win a rookie salary cap and other small tweaks to the system. This lockout is remembered most for its inopportune timing: delaying the season that followed the New York Rangers‘ 1994 Stanley Cup championship, and eliminating a chance to capitalize on that surge in interest. — Wyshynski
1995-96: Third jerseys are born
For years, the NHL jersey was treated like a sacred shroud. There was a home jersey, there was an away jersey, there was the occasional special anniversary jersey and that was that … until 1995, when the NHL greenlit “third jerseys” for its teams.
While it allowed for some creative designs, the main motivation was to open up a previously untapped revenue stream. The program produced some of the most memorable designs in sports history — for better or worse — such as the Mighty Ducks of Anaheim’s “Wild Wing” jersey, the Boston Bruins‘ “Pooh Bear” jersey, and the Tampa Bay Lightning‘s “rain drops” jersey. Almost three decades later, many of these designs were resurrected as “Reverse Retro” jerseys.
While alternate NHL jerseys have since become commonplace, they were born in the early years of Bettman’s tenure. — Wyshynski
Sept. 1995: The NHL joins the Olympics
Inspired by the NBA’s “Dream Team” success at the 1992 Summer Olympics, Bettman and the owners wanted to send NHL players to the Winter Olympic men’s ice hockey tournament for the first time. They couldn’t get things in order quickly enough for the 1994 Lillehammer Games, but Bettman received approval from the NHL Board of Governors to send players to the 1998 Nagano Games. Unlike the NBA, the NHL would have to shut down its regular season to accommodate player participation, and Bettman negotiated a tighter Olympic tournament schedule to get the owners on board.
The NHL would participate in five Winter Games, but its players haven’t appeared in one since Sochi in 2014. The owners’ lack of enthusiasm over breaking for the PyeongChang Olympics without IOC or NHL player concessions compelled them to not participate in 2018. An interruption in the NHL regular season schedule due to the COVID-19 pandemic caused Bettman to opt out of the 2022 Beijing Olympics.
There’s hope that the NHL will return to play in the 2026 Olympics in Italy, as was collectively bargained with the players. — Wyshynski
1995-96: The Canadian Assistance Plan
The 1990s were not kind to the finances of Canadian teams. As Bettman told MacLean’s in 2009: “There was a point in the early 1990s when some said there was only going to be one team left in Canada.”
One of the NHL’s solutions to this crisis was the Canadian Assistance Plan, which bolstered small-market teams during a time when the Canadian dollar was worth $0.62 USD. Franchises like the Calgary Flames, Edmonton Oilers, Ottawa Senators and Vancouver Canucks were subsidized with revenue-sharing payments between $2 million and $3 million from 1995 to 2004.
While U.S. teams protested, Bettman was steadfast in trying to keep those franchises operating in Canada, especially in the wake of Winnipeg’s relocation to Arizona in 1996. — Wyshynski
1996: The instigator rule debuts
There have been calls for the NHL to “ban fighting” during Bettman’s tenure, especially as other levels of hockey created more severe punishments for on-ice fisticuffs. But Bettman never wavered from his belief that fighting “has been a part of the game,” albeit an illegal one within the rules.
Instead, Bettman has endorsed incremental reductions in certain types of fights. In 1996, the NHL changed its penalties for a player who instigates a fight to a two-minute minor, a five-minute major and a 10-minute misconduct — not only removing that player from the ice but giving an opponent a power play. Get two instigators in a game and it’s a game misconduct; get three in a season and it’s an automatic one-game suspension.
Bettman also oversaw a rule that made it illegal for a player to remove his helmet before a fight and a crackdown on “staged” fights at the start of a game or in its final moments. By 2019, the NHL dipped under 200 games with a fighting major for the first time in the modern era. — Wyshynski
1995-97: The Quebec Nordiques, Winnipeg Jets and Hartford Whalers all relocate
One of the trends that came to define Bettman throughout his tenure was the changing geographic landscape, with the hopes of finding more financial success.
It started with the Nordiques relocating to Denver in 1995, becoming the Colorado Avalanche and winning the Stanley Cup in their first season. They were followed by the Winnipeg Jets moving to Arizona in 1996, becoming the Phoenix Coyotes and reaching the playoffs in five of their first six seasons. Then came the decision to move the Hartford Whalers to North Carolina in 1997, creating the Carolina Hurricanes. The Canes reached the Cup final in their fifth season and eventually won it in 2006. — Ryan S. Clark
June 25, 1997: Nashville Predators begin new wave of NHL expansion
By the time Bettman took control, the league had expanded to create the San Jose Sharks (1991), Ottawa Senators and Tampa Bay Lightning (1992), as well as the Florida Panthers and Mighty Ducks of Anaheim (1993). The league continued that growth into new markets on Bettman’s watch, which included a new revenue stream with the franchise fee being set at $80 million.
The NHL entered into a new millennium by adding four teams to bring the total to 30: the Nashville Predators (1998), Atlanta Thrashers (1999), Columbus Blue Jackets and Minnesota Wild (2000). The Thrashers would relocate to Winnipeg in 2011 to become the second iteration of the Jets. — Clark
1999-2000: The NHL introduces the overtime loss and 4-on-4 overtime
Tie games had been a part of the NHL for decades. The problem, as Bettman saw it, was that too many teams were “playing for the tie,” going for a guaranteed point in the standings rather than going full throttle for a two-point victory late in regulation or in sudden-death 5-on-5 overtime.
So he backed an effort to change the overtime rules in 1999-2000: Both teams would be assured one standings point for a “regulation tie” before playing a kinetic 4-on-4 overtime trying to secure an additional point. While further overtime changes would come, this was an important step toward encouraging teams to reconsider their conservative approach. — Wyshynski
2000-2001: The NHL adopts a two-referee system for all games
Enforcing the rulebook during a fast-paced NHL game is a tough gig for one referee, yet that was the norm for decades. But in the late 1990s, there was a push to add an additional referee to the ice. The NHL experimented with that setup during the regular season and the playoffs in the 1998-99 season before making the two-referee system permanent in the 2000-2001 season.
According to the league’s data, the extra referee made a difference, as penalties dropped under that system. “Players are more cautious, and they stick to playing hockey when there’s an extra set of eyes out there,” Bettman said at the 1999 Board of Governors meeting — Wyshynski
Nov. 22, 2003: Commonwealth Stadium hosts the first Heritage Classic
For just the fourth time in NHL history, the league held an outdoor game. The inaugural edition of the Heritage Classic featuring the Edmonton Oilers and Montreal Canadiens was played in front of more than 57,00 fans at Commonwealth Stadium, home of the CFL’s Edmonton Elks.
It became the NHL’s first outdoor game since 1991 when the Los Angeles Kings played the New York Rangers in a preseason contest at Caesars Palace in Las Vegas. But the impact of the Heritage Classic became a launch point for the league to start having more outdoor games going forward. — Clark
Feb. 16, 2005: The NHL cancels the 2004-05 season
It was the bitter end to two years of failed collective bargaining talks between the NHL and NHLPA: There would be no 2004-05 hockey season. The league locked its players out for the second time in nine years on Sept. 16, 2004; by February, the NHL became North America’s first pro sports league to lose an entire season to a labor impasse.
Both sides were dug in on the merits of a hard salary cap and concepts like “cost certainty,” which the league didn’t feel there was enough of with only 11 profitable franchises at the time. Every arena remained shuttered until the situation was resolved on July 15, 2005. The season’s cancellation also meant the Stanley Cup went unawarded for the first time since the Spanish Flu pandemic in 1919. — Kristen Shilton
Apr. 26, 2005: Bettman reinstates Todd Bertuzzi to the NHL after a 17-month suspension
In March 2004, Vancouver Canucks forward Todd Bertuzzi tried to fight Colorado Avalanche forward Steve Moore, continuing the Canucks’ revenge mission for Moore having injured their captain Markus Naslund with a hit in a previous meeting. When Moore declined to fight, Bertuzzi sucker-punched him in the back of the head. Moore collapsed to the ice and suffered three fractured vertebrae in his neck and a grade-three concussion, among other injuries.
The incident made global headlines and led to a charge of assault causing bodily harm in Canadian criminal court, for which Bertuzzi received a conditional discharge. Moore filed multiple lawsuits seeking financial compensation, claiming he was premeditatively targeted by the Canucks. Bettman and Daly acted as mediators at one point.
As for Bertuzzi, Bettman suspended him for the rest of the Canucks’ 2003-04 season (13 regular season games, seven playoff games). He remained suspended through the NHL’s canceled 2004-05 season. Bettman reinstated him on Aug. 8, 2005, citing his attempts to apologize to Moore and over $850,000 in lost salary and endorsements. Bettman made it clear that Bertuzzi was “on probation” for the 2005-06 season, and was forbidden to play in games involving Moore, who would never appear in the NHL again. — Wyshynski
July 22, 2005: The NHL changes its draft lottery rules after the canceled season
The NHL’s canceled 2004-05 season forced the league to get creative in how it would approach the 2005 draft, an event headlined by the generational talent of 17-year-old Sidney Crosby. Without standings from the previous campaign, the NHL landed on a weighted lottery that gave every team a chance at the No. 1 overall pick.
The best odds — three entries each — were given to four teams (the Buffalo Sabres, Columbus Blue Jackets, New York Rangers and Pittsburgh Penguins) that had gone three consecutive seasons without making the playoffs and hadn’t won the last four lotteries. Ten teams received two balls each for making one of the last three postseasons or winning one lottery. The rest of the field received one ball.
The Penguins had a 1-in-16 shot at the top selection, and that 6.25% was all they needed to draw first and take Crosby. The Penguins won three Stanley Cups (2009, 2016, 2017) during the Crosby Era. — Shilton
2005: The “Shanahan Summit” ushers in a bunch of post-lockout rules
During the lockout, Detroit Red Wings star Brendan Shanahan hosted 26 players, coaches, owners, agents and executives in what would become known as the “Shanahan Summit.” This brainstorming session produced a slew of new ideas for the NHL: the shootout to end games, allowing two-line passes, cracking down on obstruction, restricting line changes for teams guilty of icing and the creation of a competition committee that included active players.
Shanahan pitched those ideas to Bettman, and they helped shape an “NHL 2.0” when the league returned in 2005-06. This fostered a relationship between Bettman and Shanahan that would result in him joining the NHL after retirement and heading up its Department of Player Safety, as well as an NHL-backed “Research and Development Camp” in 2010 that helped finetune 3-on-3 overtime and hybrid icing, among other innovations. — Wyshynski
Jan. 1, 2008: Ralph Wilson Stadium is the stage for the first Winter Classic
Nearly five years had passed since the Heritage Classic. The conversation around the need for more outdoor games turned into reality when the Buffalo Sabres played the Pittsburgh Penguins in front of 71,217 fans at what is now known as New Era Field (then Ralph Wilson Stadium), the home of the NFL’s Buffalo Bills in Orchard Park, N.Y.
The New Year’s Day game was the first regular-season outdoor game that was played in the United States. Between the snowy conditions, vintage sweaters and the thrilling shootout ending, the game was a big success. It became a springboard for the NHL to start hosting the Winter Classic on an annual basis, while also seeing the more regular return of the Heritage Classic and the introduction of the Stadium Series.
As of the 2023 Winter Classic, there have been 36 outdoor games played during Bettman’s tenure. — Clark
May 9, 2009: The Phoenix Coyotes file for Chapter 11 bankruptcy
Mounting financial challenges led to then-Coyotes owner Jerry Moyes filing for bankruptcy just 13 years after the team formerly known as the Winnipeg Jets relocated to Arizona. Moyes tried to sell the team to Blackberry founder Jim Balsillie, whose intention would have been to relocate it to Hamilton, Ontario.
Both the NHL and the City of Glendale fended off Balsillie, with the league buying the Coyotes with the hopes of finding an owner who would keep the team in Arizona. After a number of failed attempts to sell the team to potential owners, the NHL finally found a new owner in 2013 (IceArizona) that would change the team’s name to the Arizona Coyotes beginning in the 2014-15 season. Controlling interest in the team would be sold to Alex Meruelo in 2019. — Clark
June 2011: The NHL Department of Player Safety is created
For years, the NHL’s supplemental discipline was handled by its hockey operations department and headed up by VP Colin Campbell. But in June 2011, Bettman deputized Brendan Shanahan with creating the first Department of Player Safety, naming him the first NHL Senior Vice President of Player Safety in the process.
The new department had three primary missions at the start:
To tackle illegal hits to the head and reduce concussions using the NHL’s Rule 48
To specifically target repeat offenders with lengthier suspensions and multiplicated losses in salary
To better educate players, teams, media and fans about the justification for suspensions through detailed video breakdowns
Today’s young stars grew up watching the video breakdowns, resulting in an NHL that’s more about speed and skill than it is injurious hits. “The next generation is only about four or five years down the road. These kids that were between 14 and 16 would be impacted by these videos,” Shanahan told ESPN. — Wyshynski
2011: Atlanta Thrashers move to Winnipeg
Expanding to non-traditional areas became one of the focal points of Bettman’s tenure. A number of those markets found long-term success, fiscal sustainability or both. Atlanta was not one of them.
The NHL’s desire to grow its footprint meant returning to Atlanta — a metropolitan area that was going through a period of growth at the time — with the hopes this reboot would have more success than the league had with the Atlanta Flames, who relocated in 1980 to become the Calgary Flames just eight years after their inception.
The NHL’s second attempt at Atlanta resulted in one playoff appearance in 12 seasons. Attendance issues coupled with financial challenges ultimately led to the Thrashers leaving Atlanta for a second time and relocating to Winnipeg, which lost the Jets after a relocation to Phoenix in 1996. — Clark
Jan. 12, 2013: The 2012-13 lockout ends
The NHL locked its players out for the third time in 19 years when their collective bargaining agreement expired on Sept. 16, 2012. The sides had failed to agree on a new deal before arriving at the impasse, with more issues than ever remaining unresolved.
Among the issues: Owners wanted to reduce the players’ share of hockey-related revenue from 57% to 46%, set a four-year maximum term on all future contracts, eliminate signing bonuses and extend the length of entry-level contracts from three to five years.
It would take months of further talks and independent mediation for a final 16-hour negotiation to result in a new CBA being tentatively agreed upon at 4:45 a.m. on Jan. 6, 2013. The NHL’s Board of Governors ratified that document on Jan. 9, and three days later the NHLPA did the same to end the lockout. A shortened, 48-game season followed that resolution. — Shilton
2013-14: The NHL realigns from six divisions to four
The Thrashers had moved to Winnipeg in 2011, and the NHL saw a need to adjust even further. In October 2013, the league rolled out a new four-division format and playoff system that would debut in the 2013-14 season.
The realignment made the NHL more geographically appropriate based on time zone; the Detroit Red Wings and Columbus Blue Jackets shifted into the Eastern Conference and the Jets went to the Western Conference, while the Dallas Stars slid into the Central Division.
When it came for postseason play, there would still be 16 teams in the field, but now the top three teams in each division would secure a spot, and the final slots would be wild-card berths for the next two highest-ranking teams in the conference regardless of division. While more teams have since been added to further even out the conferences, that wild-card playoff format remains. — Shilton
2015: Video review is expanded to include a coach’s challenge
The NHL borrowed a play from the NFL when it introduced the coach’s challenge in 2015-16. Hockey’s version would be limited in scope, with only two scenarios allowed to be reviewed: if a goal-scoring play was offside or if a scoring play involved goaltender interference. Additionally, a coach could challenge a goal being waived off for goalie interference, if they believed there was no interference on the play. Teams had to have a timeout remaining in order to use a challenge, and would lose that timeout if the challenge was unsuccessful. (They would retain the timeout if the challenge was correct.)
This was another small step toward the NHL ensuring calls were being made correctly and outcomes weren’t decided on potential human error. It’s been the subject of debate over the years — especially when long reviews slow down a game’s pace — but the coach’s challenge is here to stay. — Shilton
Sept. 4, 2015: The league ends its moratorium on expansion bids
After accepting Atlanta into its fold in 1999, the NHL wouldn’t begin entertaining expansion team bids again until 2015. The league opened a formal expansion process that summer, with Bettman setting the minimum cost of a new team at $500 million. That was well above what the Thrashers paid — $80 million — and despite rumors that several cities were interested in acquiring an NHL club, only two actually entered the ring: Quebec City and Las Vegas.
The latter seemed like a slam dunk to be approved, given that prospective owner Bill Foley had already collected more than 13,000 season ticket deposits for a team that didn’t exist, and the arena Foley was building would be completed in 2017 — coinciding with the first possible season (2017-18) that an expansion team would take the ice. And so it was on June 22, 2016, the NHL accepted Vegas’ bid for a club, but deferred Quebec’s request.
The expansion would continue in 2018, when Seattle’s bid for expansion was approved, and the Kraken would debut in 2021-22. — Shilton
Sept. 21-23, 2017: The NHL plays two exhibition games in China
Like a number of leagues, the NHL was seeking to break new ground in a different part of the world in the hopes of capturing an even larger audience. That process began in 2007 when the Anaheim Ducks and Los Angeles Kings played two regular-season games at the O2 Arena in London, and continued with appearances in Sweden, Finland, Germany, Switzerland, Russia, Czechia, Latvia, Slovakia and other European countries in ensuing years.
In 2017, the effort extended to China, where hockey has managed to carve its own place with examples such as HC Kunlun Red Star, the only Chinese team in the predominantly Russian Kontinental Hockey League. The NHL created the “China Games” in 2017 and 2018. There was a plan for the league to return in 2019, but logistical issues prevented what would have been a third consecutive year of games in China. — Clark
2018: NHL reaches settlement in concussion lawsuit
More than 146 former players filed a lawsuit against the NHL that alleged negligence for dealing with head injuries and claimed that the league concealed their long-term risks. In Nov. 2018, after months of court mediation, the NHL reached a settlement in which it did not acknowledge any liability for the plaintiffs’ claims in these cases. The settlement called for cash payments, neurological testing and assessment for players and a fund to support retired players.
Concussion awareness and prevention had been a major topic during Bettman’s tenure — in particular, the relationship between contact sports and chronic traumatic encephalopathy (CTE), a degenerative brain disease that had been found posthumously in former NHL players. In 2019, Bettman told a commons subcommittee on sports-related concussions on Parliament Hill in Ottawa that “other than some anecdotal evidence, there has not been that conclusive link” made by medical experts between concussions and CTE. That stance, which Bettman has reiterated through the years, stands in contrast with that of the NFL, which stated for the first time in 2016 that it believed there was a link between football and degenerative brain disorders like CTE. — Wyshynski
July 10, 2020: The NHL and NHLPA ratify a new CBA, ushering in some labor peace
This was a ray of hope in otherwise dark times: As NHL operations remained shuttered against the COVID-19 pandemic, the league and its players ratified a new collective bargaining agreement that would bring labor peace through 2025-26.
Highlights of the new CBA included a flat salary cap (of $81.5 million) for the following year (and possibly beyond depending on league revenues), a 20% cap on escrow for 2020-21, a player salary deferral to account for financial losses due to the pandemic and an option to extend the CBA by a season if desired. At the same time, the sides announced a return-to-play plan for the following month in bubble locations (Toronto and Edmonton) to try to salvage something from the stalled 2019-20 season. — Shilton
Aug. 1, 2020: The COVID pandemic hits, the NHL goes to the bubble
More than two months after pausing the season because of COVID-19, the NHL announced its “Return to Play” plan. It led to the creation of a 24-team tournament in which the 12 Eastern Conference teams played in the Toronto bubble while the Western Conference teams played in the Edmonton bubble with no fans in attendance.
NHL clubs gradually reopened their facilities and eventually held a second training camp before flying to their respective bubble locations. Play resumed Aug. 1 with the qualifying round and concluded Sept. 28 with the Tampa Bay Lightning winning the Stanley Cup. — Clark
2020: The NHL responds to the Black Lives Matter protests
The killing of George Floyd by Minneapolis police officer Derek Chauvin was an international event that sparked a conversation around race and racism. The NHL created the “We Skate For” initiative within the Edmonton and Toronto bubbles, which drew criticism from those who felt the league could have been more direct with its message as well as from those who felt the NHL didn’t need to wade into the discussion.
The conversation also led to a number of players standing in solidarity to postpone games, a historic speech from Matt Dumba that was followed by him kneeling for the anthem and the creation of the Hockey Diversity Alliance, a group founded by current and former NHL players with the aim of eradicating racism. — Clark
2020-21: The NHL introduces helmet sponsors
For years, the NHL resisted using players as billboards. Like so much else, COVID-19 changed that. In an effort to recoup lost revenue following the league’s forced shutdown, Bettman gave the green light for helmet advertisements throughout the 2020-21 season.
It was meant to be a one-off, so clubs could broker one-year, break-even deals with advertisers wanting their money’s worth from the previously shortened campaign. Teams suspected the experiment would stick — some even negotiating longer-term contracts for helmet ads before the league had approved the practice past 2021 — and that turned out to be good business.
The NHL allowed helmet ad sales to continue, making for a smooth transition towards jersey sponsors to debut in 2022-23. Each club was permitted to add a single patch — and nothing more — to their sweaters, protecting the value of a single ad from being diluted through multiple sponsors — Shilton
Nov. 2021: Bettman, Daly address the Chicago Blackhawks sexual assault case
In Oct. 2021, an investigation by the law firm Jenner & Block detailed how the Blackhawks mishandled sexual assault allegations made by former player Kyle Beach against former video coach Brad Aldrich, claiming Aldrich sexually assaulted and harassed him during the team’s 2010 Stanley Cup run. The NHL indicated that while the team let the league know about the allegations in Dec. 2020, it wasn’t until Beach filed a civil lawsuit in May 2022 that the league became aware of the full extent of the allegations.
The NHL fined the Blackhawks $2 million. Bettman met with Florida Panthers head coach Joel Quenneville, who coached the Blackhawks in 2010; he said during that two-hour meeting “all parties agreed that it was no longer appropriate that he continue to serve as Florida’s head coach” and Quenneville resigned.
As of June 2022, Bettman said he wasn’t sure if he’d ever reinstate Quenneville. Bettman met with Beach, apologized and “discussed a path forward with him.” Two months later, the NHL unveiled plans for a mandatory 90-minute training program for all personnel that focused on “anti-bullying, abuse, harassment and discrimination.” — Wyshynski