Today’s NHL almost unrecognizable to the one Bettman inherited


A week or so before the first and only commissioner in NHL history was hired, former Boston Bruins general manager Harry Sinden sarcastically, although somewhat accurately, described the qualifications for the job.
“What everybody’s looking for,” Sinden told the Boston Globe in early December, 1992, “is the second coming of the man whose birthday we celebrate on the 25th of December.”
He didn’t say whether being able to walk on water, frozen or otherwise, was necessary. Turns out it wasn’t.
And that man they were looking for was Gary Bettman.
It was 25 years ago, on February 1, 1993, that Bettman officially took office and ultimately control of the NHL, with power never seen before.
But it was a few months earlier, on December 11, at the posh Breaker’s Hotel in Palm Beach, Florida, that Bettman was introduced as the first NHL commissioner, succeeding Gil Stein, long-time legal counsel, who had a brief stint as interim president. Stein succeeded John Ziegler, who had essentially been nudged out of office in June 1992 after 15 years as president.
The Breaker’s had been a favourite haunt of Ziegler and his NHL owners, not too far from where former chairman of the board Bill Wirtz, owner of the Chicago Blackhawks, docked his yacht, The Blackhawk, which was also a favourite party place for the owners when they met.
As for the hotel, it was very opulent, very quiet, very old-fashioned money. Blazers had to be worn on the premises at night. Many a day, Stein, and sometimes Ziegler, dressed head to toe in white, would lead a contingent onto the front of the property for a spirited game of lawn bowling and cocktails, while others retreated to the golf course, or the pool.
And then cocktails. An old boy’s establishment, much like its guests – the NHL owners.
That day, when he was introduced, Bettman wore a dark blue suit with a colorful tie. He was flanked at the head table in a banquet room by the league’s chairman of the board and head of the selection committee, Bruce McNall, who was also the owner of the Los Angeles Kings, the man who brought Wayne Gretzky to California; and Stein, who had been given a very golden parachute the day prior, essentially to bless the Bettman hiring and soothe any divide amongst the governors.
And it worked. McNall was the first sign of a change of direction for the NHL, replacing Wirtz as chairman of the board.
Bettman was an even bigger sign of change. Bettman and his new friends sat at a head table on a riser, which was draped in a white table cloth, with a make shift black curtain hanging behind them, the NHL logo over his head. Pretty plain stuff by today’s standards. And while most of the seats in the room were full, the media gathering wasn’t overly large, again by today’s standards.
Over the years, even as the media grew, many didn’t bother covering governors’ meetings because few of the power brokers spoke, at least not on the record, because of the threat of financial penalty, and Ziegler would only deign to talk when the meetings were over and usually gave up nothing of interest.