When NHL Commissioner Gary Bettman received the telephone call to inform him he'd been voted into the Hockey Hall of Fame as a builder, he initially thought it was about Willie O'Ree.
Commissioner Bettman knew the Hall of Fame's 18-member selection committee met Tuesday, and he was hoping for good news about O'Ree, who became the first black player in the NHL on Jan. 18, 1958, and has worked for the NHL for the past 20 years as its director of youth development and ambassador for diversity.
"I was really focused on whether or not he got in, and when I saw the 416 number (Toronto area code), I was hoping that was what the call was about," Commissioner Bettman said.
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So when Hall of Fame chairman Lanny McDonald and selection committee chairman John Davidson said they were calling to tell him he'd been voted in, the Commissioner was stunned.
"I don't think about things in those terms," he said. "People over dinner would say, 'Do you think you would ever get in?' What caught me really by surprise was the timing because they don't tell you that you're being considered. You don't file an application. It just happens."
To the Commissioner's delight, O'Ree also was voted in as a builder. They will be inducted along with player honorees Martin Brodeur, Jayna Hefford, Martin St. Louis and Alexander Yakushev on Nov. 12 at the Hall of Fame in Toronto.
The Commissioner has given speeches at the Hockey Hall of Fame induction ceremony before, but he said this one will be different.
"This is personal and the level of emotion and energy will obviously be a little bit different," he said. "I try to maintain a fairly low-key, even profile publicly, but this is going to be about a whole host of personal things, especially family."
Although Commissioner Bettman was voted in for his impressive resume of achievements over his more than 25-year tenure, the 66-year-old views it at as group honor.
"I never view these things in purely personal terms," the Commissioner said. "The people associated with our game on and off the ice at the League level, at the club level, have all been part of the team to grow what we believe is the greatest game with the greatest people associated with it. And to have a recognition of how much we as a sport have accomplished is very gratifying. And for me personally, it's humbling."
Video: Gary Bettman on entering the Hockey Hall of Fame
Commissioner Bettman said he's most proud of "the strength and growth of the game at all levels and throughout the world."
Under Commissioner Bettman, who took office Feb. 1, 1993, the NHL has grown from 24 to 31 teams, and annual revenue has increased from about $400 million to more than $4 billion. Commissioner Bettman also helped bring financial stability to the NHL and its teams with the implementation of the salary cap in 2005 and the establishment of cost certainty, in addition to increased revenue from outdoor games.
Attendance has grown by 7 million fans per season and television revenue and exposure have increased from long-term agreements with NBC in the United States (10 years, $2 billion) and Sportsnet in Canada (10 years, $5.2 billion).
"This guy has taken the National Hockey League at warp speed in the last few years," said longtime NHL executive Brian Burke, who was the Commissioner's first director of hockey operations. "I started working with him in 1993. I was one of the first guys he hired. I'm very proud that I worked for him, but he was a firefighter for about 15 years. We had franchises in trouble and moving … and he just kept steering the ship.
"Now, he's got a stable platform, and we've got labor peace and a great broadcast agreement. So it's been amazing to watch him do this."
With Bettman's guidance, the NHL footprint has also become more global, with regular-season games being played in Europe and Japan, and exhibition games in China. In addition, NHL players have showcased the game by participating in four Winter Olympics and three World Cup of Hockey tournaments.
"The Commissioner's vision to give every club a chance to win the Stanley Cup has made our game stronger," Hockey Hall of Famer Wayne Gretzky said. "His leadership and love for hockey is very evident. And hockey has become more entertaining year after year, thanks in part to his passion for the game."
That passion has been evident since Commisioner Bettman joined the NHL after working as deputy general counsel for the NBA. Burke knew little about Commissioner Bettman before he was hired and recalled being skeptical before having a telephone conversation with Bob Stein, then the president of the NBA's Minnesota Timberwolves.
"Bob Stein is a good friend of mine, and I called him and I said, 'They want to talk this guy, Bettman. Do you know who he is, this Bettman?'" Burke said. "He was like, 'If you guys can get Bettman, get him. He's a genius.'
"My first introduction to Gary, someone told me he's a genius. And he is."