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NHL Centennial

Centennial 'very big deal' for Commissioner

Gary Bettman heavily involved in planning NHL's 100th anniversary celebration

by Dave Stubbs @Dave_Stubbs / Columnist

TORONTO -- For Commissioner Gary Bettman, the NHL's yearlong Centennial celebration in 2017 is more than a meaty business file on his New York desk.

It is something deeply personal.

"I think this is a very big deal, on a whole host of levels," Commissioner Bettman said Tuesday.

An hour earlier, in Air Canada Centre's World Cup of Hockey 2016 media center alongside Centennial ambassador Wayne Gretzky, Commissioner Bettman had met a huge crowd of journalists to outline the Centennial program and The Great One's wide-ranging involvement with it.

Now, sitting in a conference room in the League's Toronto offices, Commissioner Bettman was speaking not about the who, what, when, where and how of the ambitious celebration, but the why of it.

Video: Bettman, Gretzky talk League matters, hockey history

"The Centennial squarely fits with what I think our sport is about," the Commissioner said. "I've always viewed the game as a living, breathing organism. It evolves, it changes shape, but there's a constant to it. The respect that we have for the game and its roots and its origins is highlighted when you have a milestone like 100 years. Not too many organizations in any endeavor, not just sports, are that old or have endured that long."

The League, Commissioner Bettman said, has been talking about its Centennial for years; the planning and execution of events by scores of people across most every NHL department will roll out a unique tribute to the game, taking it to fans for what will be a hands-on celebration.

Among the highlights will be the NHL Centennial Truck Tour, essentially a rolling, interactive museum that will set up shop in all NHL markets and other smaller communities.

"We're doing the things that we think, organizationally, we do really well, the things that our clubs can participate in, such as the Truck Tour," Commissioner Bettman said. "Things will be very interactive for our fans and give them yet another touch point. We wanted to make an impression on everybody associated with the game.

"I like the Truck Tour because it takes the game out to the markets, the teams, the fans. While all of the events are important, this is going to be focused and targeted and changed for every market. It's going to give people, where they live, a chance to touch the celebration."

Commissioner Bettman will mark 24 years on the job on Feb. 1, 2017. He said with a laugh that when he began, he didn't envision even a year down the road, much less the Centennial celebration.

"When you have one of these jobs, you don't look at a time horizon," the Commissioner said. "You make a commitment, you give it your all, you take a 'job,' but it's really a lifestyle. As long as the people you work for are satisfied with what you're doing and they're supportive, as long as you're excited and energized and have the level of energy necessary to do this job, you do it.

"I've been more than fortunate to have more than extraordinarily supportive owners, through good times and difficult times. There have been challenges along the way. Ultimately, you aren't judged on the challenges you have, it's on how you deal with them."

As he's waded into the Centennial project, Commissioner Bettman has considered his own hockey heroes. He figures that "probably Rod Gilbert was my first, since I'm a New Yorker (and Gilbert was a New York Rangers icon)."

Video: Gretzky on his role as NHL Centennial ambassador

Gretzky, he added, "completely lived up to my expectations the first time I met him."

It was in 1993 or 1994, when he was new in the commissioner's office. Bettman was in Los Angeles and went for a postgame dinner with the Kings forward.

"He was just awesome," Commissioner Bettman said. "He was everything that I was led to believe, every thought I had. And he was just so friendly and personable. I was proud to be associated with a League where at the time he was the biggest star. It was awesome to meet him as a fan and to spend time to get to know him personally, but especially to say to myself when I left dinner, 'What a great sport if this guy's The Great One.' "

There will be important business on Commissioner Bettman's desk, and considerable time spent with Gretzky, during the Centennial season. Whether the League goes to the 2018 PyeongChang Olympics for one, running the complex, day-to-day operations of the NHL for another.

"You can't do this unless you're able to multitask," he said. "You don't have the luxury of focusing on one thing ever."

One certain point of focus in 2017 will be a broad celebration of the NHL and the events and people who have made the League what it is.

"It is where we are evolutionarily, and it's also a window on the future," Commissioner Bettman said. "This celebration is a part of everybody who's been associated with this game -- either as a player, an executive, an official or a fan.

"This is about hockey's history, its tradition. It's the cultural part of the game, and it's the strength that endures."

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