For the last 26-plus years as the National Hockey League’s first-ever commissioner, Gary Bettman (Queens, N.Y.) has not only guided the NHL to unprecedented heights, but also positively influenced the development of the game at all levels. During Bettman’s tenure, hockey has experienced monumental growth and extraordinary levels of visibility and reach around the country.
With a commitment to increasing enthusiasm, interest and involvement in hockey from the youth level and up, Bettman has stressed the importance of access to hockey across the nation. Since assuming his role in February of 1993, Bettman has led the expansion of the league from 24 teams to its current 31-team format (to be 32 in 2021), with the added U.S. franchises helping fuel growth of the game at the grassroots level. In what could be termed non-traditional areas like Arizona, Texas, Nevada and Tennessee where new franchises are in place, participation has enjoyed exceptional growth in the number of players, established a greater emphasis on initiatives to teach the sport locally and cemented an avenue for direct exposure to the game. By example, hockey in Texas, home of the Dallas Stars, has grown from 1,601 players in 1993 to over 15,000 today. Similarly, in just two years since the Vegas Golden Knights made their NHL debut, hockey participation in Nevada has nearly doubled from 1,382 players to 2,574 players.
Bettman also placed emphasis on broadcast initiatives to increase accessibility to the game across the U.S. After securing a five-year deal with the Fox Broadcasting Company for the 1994-95 NHL season, Bettman followed by subsequent agreements with other large broadcasting entities like ABC, ESPN, Comcast and NBC to continue ensuring the coast-to-coast availability of hockey.
Bettman also worked to introduce various creative initiatives, including outdoor contests like the Winter Classic and the Stadium Series, and events like the All-Star skills competition. In addition, Bettman helped pass several rule changes to increase both the quality of the game and player safety, including eliminating the two-line pass, introducing a two-referee system and enforcing Rule 48 to eliminate and punish hits to the head.
A 1974 graduate of Cornell University where he studied industrial and labor relations, Bettman earned his Juris Doctor degree from New York University Law School in 1974. He served in the marketing and legal departments of the NBA, rising to third-in-command before joining the NHL. Currently the longest serving active commissioner in professional sports, Bettman was inducted into the Hockey Hall of Fame in 2018.