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The odds seemed low that National Hockey League commissioner Gary Bettman would get booed in Las Vegas.
Because of work stoppages and other affronts to rabid hockey fans, Bettman is no stranger to being booed. But the league had just awarded Sin City a franchise, and the commissioner was there on Nov. 22, 2016, to tell fans the team’s name: The Vegas Golden Knights.
“The fans clearly had nothing to complain about,” Bettman recalled. “I get introduced and I get booed. And when I get to the mic, I say, ‘I want to thank you for that great welcome because it proves to me that Las Vegas is ready to be an NHL market.’ ”
Over his career, Bettman has done much to make hockey — and sports — primetime-ready. When he got to the National Basketball Association, where he was general counsel, NBA Finals games were televised in late night, via tape delay. Bettman negotiated new TV deals and spearheaded the establishment of NBA Entertainment, which produced the long-running series NBA Inside Stuff.
“He’s indefatigable,” former NBA commissioner David Stern said. “He can seem easygoing, but he’s not, because it masks his intensity. And he’s got a self-effacing sense of humor that can be a lot of fun.”
Bettman left the NBA to become NHL commissioner in 1993. The organization similarly lacked much TV presence in the United States, unlike in Canada, where Hockey Night in Canada is a long-running hit. He made deals with Fox — remember the glowing puck? — and ESPN/ABC Sports, which later dropped the league.
Then, starting in 2006-07, Comcast picked up the NHL’s national cable rights for what was then its OLN network. Coincidentally, it later acquired NBCUniversal; NBC held the national broadcast rights.
“I’ve known Gary for more than 25 years, and in that time I’ve watched him lead the NHL with passion, grit and innovation,” said Brian Roberts, chairman and CEO of Comcast, which also owns the Philadelphia Flyers. “His vision and drive have helped grow the sport and open up new opportunities for players and fans alike.”
Thanks to its deal with NBC Sports Group, for the first time the 100-yearold league has all of its Stanley Cup Playoffs games on national TV.
“He puts the fans first and he pushes us to do things better and smarter,” NBC Sports Group chairman Mark Lazarus said of Bettman. “He’s direct. He’s transparent. He is collaborative. He’s very hands-on and knows intimately the details of every issue that we have to deal with him on.”
One of those early issues was creating the “Inside the Glass” feature that perches NBC analyst Pierre McGuire between the benches during games to capture details of what’s happening on the ice.
Sam Flood, executive producer and president of production at NBC Sports, was pushing the idea but said he was getting some resistance from the league’s broadcast and operations departments, which weren’t sure they could make it work.
Finally, at the end of one meeting of top NBC and NHL executives, Flood said Bettman turned to him and asked, “Sam, is there anything I can do for you as we start this process?” Flood replied, “I really need to get someone inside the glass at every game” and explained what the position would be and how it would help hockey.
“I see no issue with that. Done,” Bettman replied, according to Flood. “And from that point on, ‘Inside the Glass’ was going to happen.”
During NBC’s 2007 Stanley Cup Finals broadcast, the Anaheim Ducks didn’t have a space between the benches, so the league let the NBC analyst sit on the home team’s bench.
“The league made the system work, and it has become the industry standard,” Flood said.
“It’s not just ‘Inside the Glass,’ ” Bettman said, pointing that the league collaborated with its broadcast partners to create the Winter Classic and other outdoor stadium games that have become events for the league and tentpole programming for NBC.
“The point is, it is a mantra here organizationally that we want to work together to make sure we’re getting the most creative and compelling coverage.”
In addition to the broadcast deal with Comcast and NBC in the United States, Bettman signed a massive deal giving all video rights in Canada to Rogers Media in 2013. On the digital side, Bettman orchestrated a unique deal that gave the NHL a stake in Major League Baseball’s BAMTech, in which The Walt Disney Co. recently invested $1.58 billion.
“We are in the process of making sure that we are taking maximum advantage of all the digital platforms, especially social media,” said Bettman, who recently met with companies including Amazon, Facebook, Google and Apple.
“We’re constantly striving to make sure that we can see what’s coming down the pike. We need to be flexible, we need to be knowledgeable and we need to be innovative.”
For a sport that has been historically underserved by traditional media, Bettman said the game is now more widely viewed, via media or in person, than ever before.
Bettman has balance in his life as well, with children Lauren, Jordan and Brittany, four grandkids and one more on the way. NBC Sports’ Lazarus said Bettman encourages family members to go to events.
“He always has his children and grandchildren with him at games,” Lazarus said. “They’re rabid fans, and he is blessed to be able to have them along with him.”
Lazarus noted that when it’s time for him to have lunch with Bettman, they don’t wind up in the midtown restaurants Manhattan media execs usually frequent. “For Gary, it means the Evergreen Diner in the West 40s,” he said, referring to a neighborhood favorite that closed in December 2016. “When he walked in, the staff knew him. They treated him and he treated them like you would treat friends and family,” Lazarus recalled. “That’s the way he is.”
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