Gary Bettman’s 20-year anniversary as NHL commissioner: The good, the bad and the unplayed

Do you hate Gary Bettman?

Good, because that's his job. Loather-in-chief. A sponge for your abhorrence, a deflector shield for whomever that hatred should be actually directed towards.

It's a rite of passage for a National Hockey League fan to blame every problem great or miniscule on Bettman because it feels right; Bettman is to bile as a teddy bear is to love — a magnet for such things.

I'm as guilty as anyone. Back when I was writing a web column called "The Jester's Quart", it was described as a "weekly satirical look at sports, pop culture and why NHL Commissioner Gary Bettman is a jackass." Because, in my eyes, he was. I used to blame him for, like, the puck over the glass rule. It was that level of blind rage.

But as Bettman's commissionership reaches its 20th anniversary on Tuesday, many of us have changed our views on him. Not that there isn't anything to loathe — oh, for the love of all that is holy and hockey, is there stuff to loathe — but because Gary Bettman shouldn't take the blame for every mistake, misstep and lingering problem that faces the National Hockey League in 2012.

It's not that he's done poorly as commissioner, because the facts bear out that he hasn't.

So what's his legacy?

That he didn't maximize the opportunities that were in front of him. That the NHL's full potential as an entertainment product in the U.S. has never been achieved. That it has had growth, but could have grown so much larger.

Which was, in fact, Bettman's mandate back on Dec. 12, 1992.

Gary Bettman was nothing you'd expect from a National Hockey League commissioner, and yet was everything the NHL needed when he was hired 20 years ago.

He was a basketball guy, serving as senior vice-president and general counsel of the NBA for eight of his 11 years with the Association. He was the antithesis of the Canadian stereotype that fueled xenophobia about the NHL in the U.S. — a tart New York lawyer who appeared to have slightly less experience with hockey than Manute Bol. (Somewhat ironically, he was also the third straight American hired to head the League.)

He didn't look the part, but he fit the suit: The NHL needed a national television contract and a foaming bulldog at the collective bargaining table with the NHLPA. It wanted a salary cap, and equitable revenue sharing. Essentially, it wanted to be the NBA in the U.S., so it hired from the right hand of David Stern.

"I think I'm pretty knowledgeable in the sports industry," Bettman said during his introduction as incoming (and first-ever) NHL commissioner. "I'm going to cram and learn and study as much as I can. I've got to learn the specifics of this business better."

Here's Bettman, with more hair and a lot less lockout mileage, from 1992:

(What happened to that charmer, right?)

Early into his term, Bettman had his first work stoppage.

He couldn't keep the owners in line back in 1994-95, with the momentum from the New York Rangers' Cup victory having intoxicated big markets into thinking they were risking a Golden Age for the NHL for the sake of a salary cap.

Turns out the Golden Age would be tarnished by the Dead Puck Era, during which Bettman bizarrely tried to sell hockey's offensive flourishes during a time when the NFL and Vince McMahon were making billions selling violence.

(And while Bettman doesn't deserve grief for rules that are or aren't changed, that's a pretty long stretch to have allowed the game to die on the vine like that.)

Allegedly losing $500 million per season under the League's financial system, Bettman and the owners orchestrated a second lockout in 2004-05 and kept their solidarity in place to finally earn their salary cap — sacrificing a season to do so.

Had you measured Bettman's performance from 1992 to 2005, he'd go down as C-minus, D-plus commissioner. The lockout strengthened the League's financial standing; but its standing as a viable sport in the U.S. was in question. From television to the gate, uncertainty clouded the NHL's future.

But his fortunes changed after Lockout II.

The new rules made the product undeniably more attractive. So did a slew of new stars, and a return to prominence for a few franchises in strategically important cities like Pittsburgh, Chicago and Boston. The Canadian dollar surged. The NHL's partnerships, from sponsors to a new television deal, thrived. Personnel decisions — from hiring John Collins to finally ending the disciplinary tenure of Compromised Colin Campbell — were on point.

How much of this was Bettman, and how much of it was being the right commissioner at the right time, is up to you to decide. It's like Bill Clinton overseeing an historic economic boom in the U.S. during his presidency: He didn't create Silicon Valley, but he also didn't undermine its growth. (Jury's out on whether he fornicated with it.)

With Lockout III, we're in the third period of Bettman's tenure. You can argue he's entered it with a lead, but his opponents start the final frame with a 5-minute major power play.

In other words, he's risked his good fortune with this work stoppage, and given a fuel injection to his critics.

The vitriol can be misplaced. But not always.

Since he was hired on Dec. 12, 1992, Bettman has been at the wheel for three lockouts, including the inexcusable and still embarrassing cancellation of a full season. His marketing plan for the League for nearly a dozen year was to mis-market it. He's been both a friend and a foe to small markets, including some in Canada. He's allowed some charlatans and criminals into NHL ownership positions — John Spano, for [expletive] sake? Meanwhile, Bettman's personal quest to keep the Coyotes in Glendale would have Captain Ahab calling him "a little obsessive."

As an ambassador for the League, he's like having an IRS auditor as a front-gate greeter at Disney World. ("Should you really be buying that combo park ticket with your withholdings, Mr. Anderson?")

But the criticism's not always on point, either: Gary Bettman is not the reason the neutral-zone trap put the game in quicksand for a decade. Nor is he the reason salaries get out of hand or contracts cheat the cap. He's an advocate for fighting rather than an opponent, despite the instigator rule. His allowance for violent play has frequently crossed over into negligence (see: shots, head).

In some ways, we're all still figuring out what Bettman can be faulted for, and what was beyond his control. For example:

Southern Expansion is not his fault. As Lyle Richardson pointed out in August, the "Vision for the Nineties" plan was conceived in 1989. The Nashville Predators, Atlanta Thrashers, Columbus Blue Jackets and Minnesota Wild were added during Bettman's tenure. Two of those franchises are thriving; another is thriving in a new Canadian home; and the jury's still out on Columbus.

Three lockouts are his fault. True, it takes two to tango and Bob Goodenow kept stomping on Gary's feet, but the commissioner has earned his hat trick. (Bonus points for killing a season to establish a financial system that had more loopholes than a plus-size bustiere.)

Lockout III could be coming to a close. Blame him for everything or nothing in this League; but ask yourself this in considering his 20-year legacy:

Can a man earn credit for both building and halting momentum?

I'd argue no. The NHL has taken a step back for every step forward under Bettman. This is Zion from "The Matrix." Bettman is The Architect of its destruction every several years.

Is a 10-year TV contract in the U.S. a sign of stability or a missed opportunity if the NHL continues to surge?

As impressive as the deal was for the NHL to secure, it's a broadcast network and one cable outlet. The NBA has Turner and Disney. The NHL is monogamous in the U.S. We could look back on this in a few years as a major bargain for NBC, or perhaps the NHL dodged a bullet as its fortunes change and rights fees decline.

Is growth from $400 million in annual revenue in 1992 to $3.3 billion in annual revenue in 2011 something to celebrate? Where should the NHL be today in the U.S.?

It's not Bettman's fault that hockey isn't telegenic and that hockey players (COUGHSidneyCrosbyCOUGH) don't like appearing on non-hockey related programs that demand them to be more than robotic "logo on the front" guys. It took John Collins to drag this League's collective ass into the 21st century, both in technology and showmanship and revenue exploitation. And, well, Bettman hired him.

Should the NHL be bigger today? Of course. But figuring out why it isn't brings us into uncomfortable territory about the role of violence, the demographic makeup of the League and its fan base and the NHL's decision to build popularity without suckling at the ESPN teat.

Bettman's directly responsible for that last item, and has influence over the first. But there are still obstacles for the NHL and casual American fans that may take generations to overcome.

And, perhaps most of all:

Would the NHL be better off, worse off or about the same had Gary Bettman not been its commissioner for the last 20 years?

I'd say "about the same."

Expansion would have happened. The rule changes would have happened. The Canadian dollar's surge would have happened.

Then again, would three lockouts have happened? Would the League's growth have been in a holding pattern for a decade like it was under Bettman until the rule changes?

Speaking of which: The real measure of his legacy, at least where I'm sitting, is "Can I blame him for the shootout?"

Because I hate the [expletive] shootout and hence it must be all Gary's fault, right?