NHL Commissioner Gary Bettman responds to questions during a news conference. (Mary Altaffer / Associated…)
When Gary Bettman becomes irate, spots of color bloom near his cheekbones and his body vibrates like a taut wire. And rarely has the NHL commissioner appeared as angry as he was on Dec. 6, after the league broke off collective bargaining talks with the players' association and he was asked how he feels about presiding over his third lockout in 20 years.
"It's absolutely something that torments me," he said, biting off the words as his complexion took on the reddish color of his tie.
Yet, most fans and players don't believe he's troubled by the discord that has postponed the start of the 2012-13 season at least through Dec. 30. Nor do they trust him and his strategy.
They've read the NHL's news releases about revenues reaching a record $3.3 billion last season and wonder how the league can be in such peril now. The last lockout was defensible because of league-wide losses, and although Bettman became the first commissioner of a major North American sport to cancel a season over a labor dispute, he won major concessions. The players' union splintered and Bettman got an economic overhaul anchored by a salary cap in addition to fan-friendly changes on the ice.
This dispute feels different. Some teams are making piles of money and many have signed players to contracts that are double-digit-years in length and triple-digit-millions in payout. But Bettman sees costs rising and fears for the mid- and small-market teams, and he feels obliged to protect them.
Owners deemed it insupportable when players' salaries last season consumed 57% of hockey-related revenues, money contractually defined to be shared. After making a severe initial offer that seemed only to rally players around NHL Players' Assn. leader Donald Fehr, Bettman locked players out Sept. 15. "We believe we're paying out too much," he said.
How much is too much? Whatever the owners say it is.
Bettman works for them, and they've shown their approval of him by extending his contract and paying him nearly $8 million in salary and benefits for the fiscal year that ended June 30, 2011. Some big-market clubs have pressured him to forge a deal and start an abbreviated season, but he's holding firm on three issues: a 10-year collective bargaining agreement (with an opt-out after eight years); a five-year maximum for players' contracts except teams can re-sign free agents for seven years, and no buyouts as the next labor deal is phased in.
"It certainly appears as an observer of these things that the league is taking a very strong-willed approach in these negotiations, and I suppose folks shouldn't be too surprised because of the similar approach in the labor stoppage the NHL had in 2004," said Seth Borden, a labor lawyer and partner at the New York office of McKenna Long & Aldridge who said he's a sports fan but doesn't know Bettman personally.
The deal that ended the 2004-05 dispute, initially considered a win for the NHL, was undermined when owners doled out long, front-loaded contracts that minimized salary-cap hits. This time, Bettman is intent on closing all loopholes and saving the owners from themselves. He already gave them a huge victory when players accepted a 50-50 split of hockey-related revenues throughout the next agreement.
"He's got his marching orders. He knows what he wants to achieve on behalf of his folks," Borden said. "He has taken a very aggressive approach in trying to achieve those objectives."
Bettman, 60, inarguably excels at the business of hockey.
"He's brilliant. He's mastered the breadth of the industry, and it's a broad industry, with lots of detail," said Toronto Maple Leafs General Manager Brian Burke, who was Bettman's top hockey deputy from 1993 to '98.
"He communicates wonderfully with the owners. That's a big part of his job. He's probably on the phone with 10 different owners every day. He was very fair when I worked for him. A born teacher."
But the knowledge and assurance that make Bettman an effective businessman make him an unsympathetic figure to players, fans and those who have emotional investments in the game.
Owners can be reclusive, but Bettman is out front and an easy target. A New Jersey resident who speaks with the accent of his native Queens, Bettman isn't warm and fuzzy. He's sharply intelligent and can come off as cold. Some Canadians resent that he didn't learn the game in Moose Jaw or Toronto and insist he can't have the good of their game at heart.
Bettman declined an interview with The Times, saying he didn't want his comments to affect the labor talks. Those who know him say he has a human side and has been wronged in the court of public opinion.
"I wish Gary was perceived more fairly than he is in Canada because he's a great guy, a brilliant guy, and he's really been good for our league," Burke said. "You have to look at the metrics of this league from when Gary took over to where we are now, and he's been a marvelous commissioner."