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US Hockey Hall of Fame

Bettman's efforts to grow game earn him spot in U.S. Hockey Hall of Fame

NHL Commissioner lauded for expanding League's footprint across country

by Dan Rosen @drosennhl / NHL.com Senior Writer

NEW YORK -- Gary Bettman's introduction to the NHL as Commissioner nearly 27 years ago coincided with a team relocation reaffirming his belief that the League's stability, impact and visibility in the United States weren't close to where they needed to be.

"Minnesota moving to Dallas," the Commissioner said. "While Dallas seemed like a great idea, leaving Minnesota didn't. I didn't sense there was an overall stability for the game, particularly in the United States."

Commissioner Bettman will be inducted into the U.S. Hockey Hall of Fame during a ceremony in Washington on Thursday because the League and the game have never been stronger in the United States.

The NHL is in 24 U.S. markets, with a 25th on the way in Seattle and a national television deal that has helped with growth and expansion. In addition, USA Hockey, which has received resources from the NHL, is now considered at least on par with Hockey Canada in terms of its size, economics and grassroots growth.

"It goes beyond description what he's done for hockey, particularly in the U.S.," former NHL executive and current Sportsnet commentator Brian Burke said. "It would be impossible to describe. It would take a book. The charitable aims, the spread of hockey, the Learn to Play [program], expansion, just everything. It's the whole thing.

"We were a fragmented, mom and pop industry league. There were a lot of people who figured NASCAR was ahead of us in the big four. Gary has changed all that."

Video: Bettman on being U.S. Hockey Hall of Fame inductee

Commissioner Bettman talks about the gains from a League-wide perspective and refuses to limit them to just the United States, but the majority of the growth during his tenure has taken place there.

"It's because of a variety of factors," NHL Deputy Commissioner Bill Daly said, "but first and foremost is his vision for the game, his ability to work to obtain that vision, and his universal support within the game in helping to obtain that vision."

The Dallas Stars have been a success since moving from Minnesota, where they were known as the North Stars, for the 1993-94 season. The Minnesota Wild now represent the "State of Hockey." The Columbus Blue Jackets have been a hit in Ohio's capital city.

The impact of hockey across the southern U.S. has been a staggering success and massively influential in the League's growth as a whole. 

The Florida Panthers, Nashville Predators, Carolina Hurricanes, Arizona Coyotes, Anaheim Ducks and Vegas Golden Knights either didn't exist or hadn't started playing when Commissioner Bettman took over on Feb. 1, 1993. 

With the Los Angeles Kings and Tampa Bay Lightning, they've all been hugely significant in the growth of the game. 

Without the NHL in Arizona, maybe the hockey world is never introduced to Auston Matthews, who was selected No. 1 in the 2016 NHL Draft by the Toronto Maple Leafs and attended Coyotes games while growing up in Scottsdale, Arizona. 

The Atlanta Thrashers didn't make it, eventually moving to Winnipeg, but that is considered to be a minor blip, especially because the Winnipeg Jets are thriving again.

 

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Former USA Hockey executive director Dave Ogrean said the southern expansion played a big role in helping the League land its first major national television contracts with Fox and ESPN in the 1990s, a prelude to the 10-year media rights contract the NHL signed with NBC in 2011.

Ogrean also credited USA Hockey's registration numbers for players, coaches and officials, which have almost doubled in Commissioner Bettman's tenure to an all-time high of 653,474 last season, to the NHL's footprint across the country.

Ogrean said the southern expansion "was critical for us to go into new markets, because if the NHL goes in, minor league hockey is going to happen, rinks are going to get built and kids who weren't playing before are going to play. If people can watch the best players in the world playing in the NHL, kids are going to want to go put on skates and get a stick in their hands. Everything works symbiotically, and he knew that early on." 

Ogrean said the Commissioner is as good of an ally as USA Hockey could have because of his belief in a collaborative system to benefit the game and all the stakeholders in it. For example, Ogrean said the USA Hockey National Team Development Program, which had 17 players selected in the 2019 NHL Draft, its most ever -- including eight in the first round, led by No. 1 pick Jack Hughes going to the New Jersey Devils -- is a thriving entity in part because of resources initially provided by the NHL.

"He knew that despite the reach and the power and the wealth the NHL collectively has, they couldn't by themselves do player development," Ogrean said. "When that was presented to the owners and approved, that was the catalyst for us not only implementing a lot of our growth initiatives, but also being able to really fund the National Team Development Program at a level to really start producing. The percentage of Americans playing in the NHL now compared to 1993 is radically different."

There were 261 U.S.-born players who played at least one game in the League last season, up from 144 in 1993-94, an increase of 81.3 percent. 

There have been 327 players from the NTDP drafted since 1999, including 80 in the first round and five at No. 1 (Rick DiPietro, 2000; Erik Johnson, 2006; Patrick Kane, 2007; Matthews, 2016; Hughes, 2019). 

"He isn't just focused on what's best for the NHL, he is focused on what is best for hockey because he knows that will fill the former," Ogrean said. "He has realized over the years that by partnering with various entities in the game, the game gets bigger and better."

It couldn't have happened without a work ethic aimed at turning a vision into reality. 

"I felt that we could be bigger, that the game could be better appreciated, and that the game could be more vibrant both at the NHL level and at the grassroots level," said the Commissioner, who was inducted into the Hockey Hall of Fame in 2018. "Did I sit there and say, 'I have a manifest destiny to get us to 32 teams'? No. The first goal, and some of it was triage, was to get our franchises as strong as possible."

Video: Commissioner Gary Bettman enshrined in Hall of Fame

Commissioner Bettman has helped settle ownership changes, some with major disputes, in 28 of the League's 32 markets (including Seattle). Only the Detroit Red Wings, Chicago Blackhawks, Calgary Flames and Boston Bruins are under the same or similar ownership as when the Commissioner took over.

Adamant that the relocation of a franchise only should happen as a last resort, Commissioner Bettman also worked tirelessly to resolve various franchise issues in Buffalo, Pittsburgh, Nashville, Arizona, New Jersey and New York (Islanders), keeping those teams in their respective markets. The same happened in Canadian markets, including Edmonton and Calgary.

"The list of franchises we saved, it wasn't necessarily because the markets weren't supportive of hockey, it was the franchises weren't as stable as we could be," the Commissioner said.

Commissioner Bettman now lauds the stable ownership in those markets, especially Arizona, saying new owner Alex Meruelo is the right person to get the Coyotes a new arena deal in Phoenix's East Valley.

"I believe in the game and the people associated with the game," the Commissioner said. "This is an ecosystem that I think was underexposed and underappreciated, and from my standpoint, the strengths of our game as people became more aware of it was going to grow the game at all levels.

"If you go back in our history, we were regional and in cold weather in the United States, but that was a historical thing. That didn't have to define us going forward."

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