I like Gary Bettman. I was ready to like him before I had ever met him. He had gone to Cornell University; I went to Cornell. That was a good place to start. When I was president of the Toronto Maple Leafs, I dealt with him often, most directly in NHL governors' meetings. He would sit at the middle of a long table at the front of a room with the league governors, usually team owners, beside him. Team owners are rich. In their own communities, they are important. They are also used to seeing themselves as important, and like to see themselves that way. In their communities and in their companies, they are also used to having their own way, and do not give up their way easily. To suggest that directing them is akin to herding cats is to give cats a bad name.
At the front table was this expressive, bug-eyed bundle of nerve endings. He spoke in bursts of words and emotions. Quick-witted, quick-tongued, aggressive, smart, well prepared — there was never any doubt who commanded that room.
His is a tough job. He presides over a league, but in many ways he also presides over a sport. In Canada, hockey matters. If Canadian NHL teams aren't doing well — on the ice or off — the hundreds of thousands of kids and adults who play recreationally don't seem to be doing as well. And because hockey seems to be a metaphor we as Canadians have applied to ourselves, and others have applied to us, when hockey isn't going well, we don't seem to be doing as well, either. As NHL commissioner, Bettman has a responsibility that the commissioners of the NFL, NBA, and MLB do not have.