U.S. AIR FORCE ACADEMY, Colo. — A freak early October blizzard was pounding the Front Range of the Rocky Mountains last week while dignitaries from the National Hockey League gathered indoors with team officials from the Colorado Avalanche and Los Angeles Kings at Falcon Stadium, the U.S. Air Force Academy’s football field.
If the weather, or the prospects of a bumpy ride back to his New York City office, weighed heavy on the mind of NHL commissioner Gary Bettman, he didn’t show it.
“You missed it. You’re too late,” Bettman joked with a reporter who had shown up at the end of the formal press conference due to a traffic pileup and the resulting shutdown of the freeway between Denver and Colorado Springs.
The jovial mood was a far cry from the first time many Minnesotans met Bettman, less than three months into his term as commissioner, which has now lasted more than 25 years. When he moved into the NHL job in February 1993, after being high up in the National Basketball Association hierarchy previously, Minnesota North Stars owner Norm Green had already secured permission to relocate his team. Bettman had been on the job roughly 6 weeks when Green formally announced the Stars' move to Dallas on March 10, 1993.
Bettman played no role in the relocation, and expressed regret that the North Stars were moving after 26 seasons in the Twin Cities. But when the new commissioner came to Minnesota a month later as the keynote speaker for the Hobey Baker Memorial Award banquet that was held roughly two blocks from Met Center, at Decathlon Athletic Club (both have since been demolished), bad feelings toward the NHL could hardly have been running higher. It is fair to say his relationship with some Minnesota hockey fans got a rocky start.
In 2019, things are clearly better between the NHL and the State of Hockey. Bettman said he doesn’t like to characterize his early months on the job as starting off on the wrong foot with Minnesotans, but feels all is well now, despite the Minnesota Wild’s current on-ice mediocrity.
“The fact is, hockey at all levels in Minnesota is thriving,” he said. “And the Minnesota Wild particularly, now under (team owner) Craig Leipold’s leadership, but even before that, has always been a source of great joy and pride to the NHL because hockey and Minnesota are inseparable.”
Bettman, 67, will be formally inducted into the U.S. Hockey Hall of Fame in December. He has overseen a time of massive revenue growth for the 31-team league (it had 22 teams when he took over) and decidedly more television exposure.
He’s been a controversial figure as well, overseeing numerous work stoppages, including the loss of the entire 2004-05 season, and the addition of teams — either through expansion or relocation — in southern markets like Tampa Bay, South Florida, Arizona, Anaheim, Nashville and Atlanta. That effort has seen mixed results, with the sport wildly popular among fans of the Predators and Lightning currently, while the Coyotes and Panthers have struggled at the box office for a decade. Hockey failed a second time in Georgia, with the Thrashers relocating to Winnipeg to become the new Jets in 2011.
While neither the North Stars nor the Wild have brought the Stanley Cup to Minnesota, the state is home to the defending champions of the National Women's Hockey League, which the NHL has supported. But while the American league for women’s pro hockey is growing, the Canadian version folded last spring, and Bettman acknowledged that a WNBA-style counterpart to the NHL is not where the league is headed.
“I think it’s important that women who play the game and have higher aspirations than just college need an outlet for their skill. But it is not easy to start a league,” he said. “It’s very complicated. We’ve seen one league fail, and I know that a lot of people are focused on this important effort.”
The NHL has also been involved in exploring and encouraging the growth of college hockey, with efforts like the commissioning of a feasibility study of adding a varsity program at the University of Illinois. Roughly one-third of NHL players come from the college ranks now, but Bettman was careful not to speak ill of major junior hockey or the European leagues — the two other primary producers of NHL talent — while praising the NCAA game.
“College hockey has become increasingly important,” he said. “Without any disrespect to any other route into professional hockey, college hockey has become increasingly important and has not only produced great players but has created more interest in the game, and that’s all a positive. But nobody has the exclusive on how you get to the NHL.”
Bettman was in Colorado to announce details of the league’s next Stadium Series outdoor game, to be held in February at Air Force between the Kings and Avalanche. Minnesota hosted a Stadium Series game at TCF Bank Stadium in February 2016 — the Wild beat the Chicago Blackhawks 6-1 with 50,000 fans on hand — and the Minnesota Twins have made it clear that Target Field would welcome a Stadium Series game or the Winter Classic, which is the NHL’s marquee outdoor game, held on New Year’s Day each year.
Bettman said Leipold has made no secret of the Wild’s desire to showcase outdoor hockey in Minnesota again.
“Craig, and before him (previous owner) Bob Naegele, have always been passionate on behalf of the Wild and on behalf of the state of Minnesota,” Bettman said. “He continues to be passionate and calls me on a regular basis to assert with great intensity his belief that we need to be coming back with an outdoor game.”
After a quarter-century on the job, Bettman has seen teams leave hockey-crazy places like Minnesota and Winnipeg only to return. He’s seen the loss of an entire season, but the league emerged with better financial health on the other side. He still gets booed by fans just before handing over the Stanley Cup each year, but the rough-and-tumble New Yorker in him almost seems to wear the audience derision as an annual badge of honor.
Like early season Colorado snow or a yearly chorus of boos, the memories of an unfriendly welcome in Minnesota when he was new on the job don't seem to trouble Bettman after all these years.