The NHL's first Commissioner reflected on his hockey journey during a ceremony to honor the U.S. Hall's 2019 class that included former NHL players Tim Thomas and Brian Gionta, two-time U.S. Olympian Krissy Wendell-Pohl, Neal Henderson, founder and coach of North America's oldest minority-oriented youth hockey program, and hockey innovator Jack Blatherwick, who received the Lester Patrick Trophy for outstanding service to U.S. hockey.
"While this is an incredible honor, what I am most thankful to you for is all you have done for this game," Bettman told an audience of 600 at the induction celebration. "Your efforts have made American hockey the best it has ever been, and the future is even brighter."
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Bettman has presided over growth of the NHL from 24 to 32 teams when Seattle begins play in the 2021-22 season and a national television deal that has helped extend the game's reach.
The League has expanded to so-called non-traditional markets, taken the game outdoors with Bridgestone NHL Winter Classic games, and shipped it overseas through the NHL Global Series.
But Bettman expressed the most pride in the growth of American hockey, noting that the number of U.S.-born players in the NHL (177 on opening-night rosters this season) has doubled in the past 27 years and that two of the last four No. 1 picks in the NHL Draft -- Toronto Maple Leafs center Auston Matthews (2016) and New Jersey Devils center Jack Hughes in 2019 -- were born in California and Florida, respectively.
"One of those top overall picks, Auston Matthews, has said it was going to an Arizona Coyotes game as a young boy that first exposed him to hockey," Bettman said. "The NHL Board of Governors -- all the owners in our League -- had the vision to encourage expansion to new markets that were never thought of as hockey hot-beds.
"From the explosion of the cannon in Columbus to the sold-out, raucous crowds in Nashville, the NHL has helped bring hockey to entire regions of the country that never had an opportunity to focus on our sport or the NHL game."
While Bettman said the NHL's nationwide presence is a factor to the growth of the American game, so too are grassroots efforts like Henderson's Fort Dupont Ice Hockey Club, a Hockey Is For Everyone affiliate in Washington, D.C., that is North America's oldest minority-oriented youth hockey program.
"His work at Fort Dupont has brought hockey to young people that for too long didn't have access," Bettman. "Years from now, when people look back at what I believe is the golden age of growth for American hockey, they will see Neal at the root of it."
Henderson said being the U.S. Hall's first black inductee and its third person of color is "the zenith of my life, other than getting married and having a son."
"I hope that me getting this award will encourage more people, especially people of color, to want to play the game because a lot of people don't know or feel they have the opportunity when it's right at their back door if they take one more step."
Blatherwick, a sports physiologist who worked closely with legendary coach Herb Brooks, thanked Bettman for convincing him to accept the Patrick Trophy, which he felt he didn't deserve.
"Gary Bettman said, 'If you look at that list of people given this award before you, it's almost disrespectful if you would turn it down,' and I almost turned it down," the 77-year-old said. "I don't believe I should get this when I think of other kind of anonymous people, like Neal Henderson, working to improve inner-city hockey, I just don't feel I should be given an award. I'm happy that I got it, the people that came out to see me are happy."
Thomas, a goalie who helped the Boston Bruins win the Stanley Cup in 2011, said he was humbled by his U.S. Hall induction. He went 214-145-49 in 426 NHL regular season games with a 2.52 GAA and .920 save percentage for the Boston Bruins, Florida Panthers and Dallas Stars.
"So it's an honor to be recognized for an impact in the sport and getting to play hockey until well into my adulthood, I guess," Thomas said.
Gionta, a forward who overcame concerns about his size (5-foot-7, 178 pounds) to score 595 points (291 goals, 304 assists) in 1,026 NHL games, said his induction is the capstone of his NHL and international hockey career that included playing in two Winter Olympics.
"You know, as a kid, you just dream of playing in the NHL, you dream of playing in the Olympics," Gionta said. "And so to be honored by USA Hockey and still be involved in youth hockey now, as a dad and a coach, it's pretty cool to be honored this way. The biggest honor, I've said before, was being able to represent my country numerous times at World Championships, World Juniors, the Olympics. This is just kind of icing on the cake."
Wendell-Pohl said she was thrilled to become the sixth woman inducted to the U.S. Hall and looks forward to seeing more join her.
"I think the future's bright and I think we've got to keep going what we're doing and keep growing the sport and I think we're all trying to do our best," she said. "Especially having young daughters, getting in at the grassroots and building it from the young up and just getting them excited about playing hockey, not necessarily for awards or any kind of teams they want to make, but just playing because it's a great sport to play."