How the NHL Grew Up

From fractious near-insolvency to profitable peace

Gary Bettman and I were comparing fitness notes one day in Toronto in the early 1990s, just after he had been picked as the National Hockey League’s first commissioner.

I told him I ran about an hour a day, maybe four times a week.

“With hills?” he asked, eyes alight, hoping for the correct answer. “Ah, no,” was my defeated reply. I loped along easy flat routes. Bettman ran hills. Early in the morning. Every morning. And with a degree of dedication I did not possess and would never attain.

That physical and mental toughness became a weapon in Bettman’s leadership arsenal as he guided the NHL over two of its most turbulent—and arguably, most successful—decades.

In his archive-based book, The NHL: A Centennial History, author D’Arcy Jenish describes the New Yorker’s heavy footprint on a league that a century after its inception, was still brawling over finances:

Bettman’s tenure as commissioner has coincided with hockey’s big-money era, but the money has brought neither bliss nor contentment. On the contrary, it has caused big fights. The disputes have been prolonged, rancorous and, for the fans, exasperating. Owners locked out players for 104 days in 1994–95, for the entire 2004–05 season and for four months in 2012–13, reducing an eighty-game schedule to forty-eight and forcing cancellation of the Winter Classic and the all-star weekend.

Bettman—now in his 22nd year as commissioner— is the most recent top executive who has steered the NHL into the North American landscape as a major professional sport since the dying days of World War One. Earlier leaders of the institution included long-serving league presidents Frank Calder and Clarence Campbell (in 1955, Campbell infamously triggered a riot in Montreal after suspending Canadiens’ star Maurice Richard just before the playoffs, a scandal Jenish examines in great depth). The shortest-serving president was Gil Stein, who held the post for just seven months before Bettman took over.

However, Bettman’s impact on the NHL will be more lasting than most because he battled to grow the sport beyond the safe embrace of traditional Canadian thinking.

Today, in early 2014, the NHL has never been more stable. There is long-term labour peace and record television revenue for broadcasting rights. Marketing ideas like the outdoor Winter Classic hockey games have proven hugely popular on both sides of the border. And, for the moment, no NHL franchise teeters on the edge of financial ruin. There is even talk of more expansion teams.

Yet it becomes clear from reading Jenish’s account that Bettman’s success might not have been so impressive had the league’s richest franchise— the Toronto Maple Leafs of the Maple Leaf Sport and Entertainment empire—not been such a meek boardroom presence during the combative commissioner’s reign.1 In The NHL, Leaf ownership over the last two decades barely makes a peep.

Over the NHL’s first 75 years in particular, Jenish does a remarkable job in piecing together a factbased recounting of NHL business, detailing an astounding number of financial and sporting crises that percolated under the radar of mainstream media. Jenish shows the nostalgic “Original Six” days were, at times, anything but a smooth ride for owners or players. For instance, the Detroit Falcons, before they were renamed the Red Wings, nearly folded during the Depression. “Attendance was so poor that [coach Jack] Adams one night admitted a fan in exchange for five pounds of potatoes.”

Hockey fans will hungrily gobble up these details, which add depth, colour and perspective to the NHL, an organization that began in three Canadian cities—Toronto, Montreal and Ottawa, with Ottawa quickly dropping out—a century ago and now extends deep into the American Sunbelt. Jenish writes in his introduction that he has accessed “more NHL archival documents than any previous writer has ever used” for accuracy.

But what should be just as remarkable about Jenish’s narrative to hockey fans—especially to those who believe that Toronto is the centre of the NHL universe, bullying the other 29 teams—is what a small role the Maple Leafs have played in influencing Bettman’s league-wide decisions. Although it is clearly the franchise that drives television revenue for the league, it appears the modern-day Leafs are content to be quiet money makers who do not make confrontation with Bettman and fellow owners a habit.

“They are like the banks; they make tons of money and don’t cause any problems,” says Jonathon Gatehouse, senior correspondent for Maclean’s magazine and author of The Instigator: How Gary Bettman Remade the League and Changed the Game Forever, of Toronto Maple Leaf ownership.

“I think they [the Leafs] have to be respected,” says Richard Peddie, author of Dream Job: My Wild Ride on the Corporate Side with the Leafs, the Raptors and TFC. “[The NHL] has to take their needs into account but I don’t get the sense they throw their weight around just for the sake of doing so.”2

The Leafs, for years, have funnelled millions of dollars into revenue-sharing pots to prop up money-losing franchises, yet have not fought openly against paying for the mistakes or incompetence of others. That reticence partly reflects the old-school manners of self-made businessman Larry Tanenbaum, the familiar face of Leaf ownership at the NHL table.

“Larry is such a gentleman,” said Peddie, who was MLSE’s “hired gun” as CEO and president for more than 15 years until he retired in 2012 and wrote his own book, Dream Job. “It’s not in his nature to get into an argument.”

Nor was it in Bettman’s nature to acquiesce to every request or idea coming out of Toronto, recalled Peddie.

“In my experience in 15 years, we didn’t have a lot of clout [with Bettman],” Peddie said, noting the Leafs were not added to the NHL’s small, powerful executive committee until recently.

Peddie said some of the Leaf pitches to the NHL—like offering to host the Winter Classic, the all-star game and the NHL entry draft in Toronto or volunteering to test NHL marketing ideas using the Leafs’ digital platforms—were not accepted. Peddie said Bettman always listened carefully to the Toronto presentations with the NHL’s creative staff and the mood in the room was always good, but in the end, Peddie concluded, Bettman “liked his own ideas better.”

Bettman did not endear himself to fans of the original Winnipeg Jets NHL franchise, which was in dire financial trouble by 1995. Bettman and the NHL placed conditions on a potential deal to keep the Jets in place that made local ownership “considerably more difficult,” Jenish writes, and that some in that failed ownership group “saw this as a sly attempt to pry the Jets from Winnipeg and move them south to enhance the NHL’s presence in the U.S.”

Under Bettman’s watch, neither was Research in Motion co-founder Jim Balsillie allowed to buy an NHL team. The NHL’s repeated rejection of the wealthy Waterloo-based Balsillie, who aggressively tried to purchase three different clubs to move one of them to Hamilton, touched a nerve with Canadians who felt it was “an affront” to deny a hockey-mad province another franchise, writes Jenish.

In other areas, Jenish has unearthed archival documents from NHL vaults that, presented for the first time in book form, recreate fascinating, pivotal moments in league history. He used unpublished verbatim transcripts of annual and semi-annual meetings of the NHL’s board of governors between 1941 and 1957 to illustrate some of the decisions and problems facing the six-team league from its official formation in 1917 through modern times.

Among other details, Jenish’s research shows the NHL considered expanding immediately after World War Two with groups from Los Angeles, San Francisco and Philadelphia making pitches, and that in the early part of the 1950s, the Chicago Blackhawks and the Boston Bruins nearly folded.

Jenish also pokes holes in some long-held beliefs that owners are in the business of hockey to make fortunes off the work of underpaid players. He instead found “that owning a franchise has, more often than not, been a licence to lose money rather than to print it; that the NHL has been a financially precarious enterprise for most of its ninety-six seasons.” The tale of one NHL expansion franchise sheds light on how frantically the league, owners and players would fight to keep a team operating.

Jenish writes about the Cleveland Barons, which had previously been the Oakland Seals, then the California Golden Seals, before owner Mel Swig moved the club to Ohio. During the rocky 1976–77 season, with other franchises in financial trouble, Swig told the NHL board of governors during the all-star break in Vancouver that his team was losing millions and he needed a league bailout or the Barons would fold.

The board refused to finance Swig. Subsequently, the Barons could not meet their February 1977 payroll. Some players quit while the rest threatened to boycott league games. Jenish recounts that John Ziegler, a lawyer who would soon to become the NHL’s first American president, and Alan Eagleson, player agent and head of the NHL Players Association, flew to Cleveland to successfully persuade the remaining Barons to continue playing. Then Ziegler and Eagleson sweet-talked the NHL governors into covering some costs.

Those Ziegler-Eagleson negotiations kept the club operating through the remainder of the season. Swig put up $350,000. The league matched it, and the players association borrowed $600,000 from a Toronto bank and loaned it to Swig on the condition that it be used strictly to cover salaries. The Hockey News, in its issue of March 13, 1977, described the deal as “one of the most bizarre rescue missions seen in the realm of professional sport.”

Jenish extracted more extraordinary information about the league’s fragile financial state from Ziegler, who was the NHL’s president from 1977 to 1992. In a rare expansive interview after leaving the NHL, Ziegler described the “insolvent” league he discovered soon after he became president.

“The debts exceeded the assets and there were large and growing liabilities,” writes Jenish. “The league was losing money on its U.S. TV contracts. Its licensing and merchandising agreements weren’t generating sufficient revenues. And several financially shaky expansion teams weren’t paying their annual dues or the promissory notes issued to the other clubs in lieu of franchise fees.” Ziegler told him it took him 18 months to solve the financial troubles and all that while he kept the true extent of the debt load from the owners in case word leaked out to a larger audience.

The cosy Ziegler-Eagleson coupling—alliance, friendship, partnership, it blurred many lines—is also discussed in The NHL, with more emphasis placed on Eagleson.

For hockey fans, particularly those who watched players such as Gordie Howe, Carl Brewer, Brad Park and, of course, Bobby Orr compete in their prime, Eagleson has become one of the game’s most notorious villains: a pension thief who stole from athletes who trusted him. Howe, Brewer, Park, Orr and others—including American journalist  Russ Conway—pushed for years to make Eagleson accountable, a movement that ultimately resulted in the one-time player agent and union head being sent to jail for fraud in 1998.

Jenish devotes an entire chapter, “The Sins of Alan Eagleson,” to the NHL’s former power broker. While Jenish ticks off the list of Eagleson’s many sins and writes that after his conviction, Eagleson “expressed no remorse at the time and has not done so since,” the author also argues that Eagleson deserves a more honest recounting of his legacy. Jenish writes that the historical facts show that NHL players’ financial and bargaining clout dramatically improved under Eagleson’s stewardship of nearly a quarter-century—an assertion that will surely curdle the blood of those Eagleson wronged, even if the salary math is indisputable.

Jenish cites these statistics as one area in which Eagleson deserves credit:

It is worth remembering that the average NHL salary when Eagleson founded the players’ association was just over $18,000 a year. The average was $276,000 when he left. The presence of the [World Hockey Association, now defunct] between 1972 and 1979 was the single biggest factor, but Eagleson the agent represented more players during those years than any other agent, negotiated more contracts, and arguably did more than any other individual to drive up salaries.

It is notable that in the last set of labour negotiations in 2013, the NHL owners—led by a stubborn Bettman—clobbered the players by clawing back their share of revenue for salaries from 57 percent to 50 percent. Another hill conquered by the commissioner.

Bettman is still running, according to Gatehouse who recounted the commissioner’s workout regime in his book: up at 6 a.m., at the NHL office by 9. When the NHL hits its 100th birthday in 2017, it is highly likely Bettman will still be league commissioner— and will still be attacking any hills in his way.

  1. The Toronto Maple Leafs’ worth was estimated at US$1.15 billion as the NHL’s most valuable franchise by Forbes Magazine in November 2013. 

  2. Jonathon Gatehouse and Richard Peddie were each interviewed exclusively for this book review.