CHICAGO (AP) — 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.
5 Things You Must Know to Get Free Obama Care Plans, Learn Them Now