To appreciate why NHL Commissioner Gary Bettman has been elected to the U.S. Hockey Hall of Fame, consider this:
Commissioner Bettman will be inducted with Brian Gionta, Neal Henderson, Tim Thomas and Krissy Wendell in Washington, D.C., on Dec. 12. Less than three weeks later, the Nashville Predators will play the Dallas Stars in the 2020 Bridgestone NHL Winter Classic at Cotton Bowl Stadium.
Before Commissioner Bettman took office Feb. 1, 1993, the NHL didn't have teams in Nashville or Dallas. College football owned New Year's Day in the United States. Now, the Predators and Stars will play in an iconic college football venue Jan. 1 before some 80,000 fans and a national TV audience on NBC.
Who would have imagined years ago that tickets would sell out in hours to an outdoor hockey game deep in the heart of Texas between teams from southern cities?
Commissioner Bettman won the Lester Patrick Trophy for outstanding service to hockey in the United States in 2001 and made the Hockey Hall of Fame last year. This is a natural.
"It is a great recognition of the work that goes on by the hundreds of people at the League office and at the clubs, and I think this recognition is really more about the growth of the game … than it is about any individual, including me," Commissioner Bettman said after the announcement Wednesday.
Video: Bettman on being U.S. Hockey Hall of Fame inductee
Commissioner Bettman is an American success story.
He was born in Queens, New York, grew up taking the subway to watch the New York Rangers from the cheap seats at Madison Square Garden and had hockey season tickets for four years in college at Cornell. As a young lawyer, he bought tickets and witnessed the New York Islanders' Stanley Cup victory at Nassau Coliseum on May 21, 1981.
Eventually, he came out of the stands and started awarding the Cup himself as the NHL's first, and only, Commissioner.
He has led the League for about a quarter of its history. In that time, it has gone from 24 teams to 31. It has become a national league in the United States, coming to places like Nashville and Dallas and Arizona and Carolina and Columbus and Las Vegas while returning to Colorado and Minnesota. A 32nd team will begin play in Seattle in 2021-22.
A new economic system has led to more stability and competitive balance. New rules have led to more skill and safety. The NHL has taken the game outdoors, overseas and online. Revenues have surpassed $5 billion.
In a testimonial on NHL.com before the Hockey Hall of Fame induction last year, Deputy Commissioner Bill Daly called Commissioner Bettman "unquestionably the most influential executive in the history of the National Hockey League."
The number of registered players in the United States reached a record 567,908 last season, according to USA Hockey. The number of registered players, coaches and officials combined reached a record 653,474.
"I believe that the efforts of USA Hockey organizing at the grassroots level has been essential to the growth of the game," Commissioner Bettman said. "But when I talk to the people at USA Hockey, they say the fact that we have more franchises in more places has actually helped fuel that growth. My guess is, it's not ever one thing, and I think it's been the collaboration of all the governing bodies and organizations, local and national, that are committed to hockey."
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USA Hockey statistics show that when the NHL moves into a market, hockey grows. One example: Texas had 1,601 registered players when the Stars arrived in 1993; it has more than 15,000 today.
More interest in hockey leads to more rinks, which leads to more opportunities for boys and girls, men and women. Gionta, who played in the NHL from 2001-18, talked about the impact of the growth of women's sports on his 11-year-old daughter, Leah.
"The NHL has been on board with pushing the women's game," Gionta said. "It's the exposure from all the different outlets. I think that's what's made the biggest impact, is everyone coming together to grow the game we love."
That's what makes this special for Commissioner Bettman.
"When you have moments like this, it tends to cause you to look back, feel a little older," said Commissioner Bettman, 67. "But you look back on all of the wonderful things that the game of hockey has done in communities and has done in my life as well, and I'm grateful to be associated with this game and to be a part of watching it grow to unprecedented heights."