The National Hockey League commissioner is the highest-ranking executive officer in the National Hockey League (NHL). The position was created in 1993 with Gary Bettman as the first commissioner. Among other duties, the commissioner leads collective bargaining negotiations on behalf of the league and appoints officials for all NHL games.
Until 1993, the NHL's top executive was the league president, and for five months in 1993 the league had a commissioner and a president. The roles were amalgamated on July 1, 1993. The presidency originated in the National Hockey Association (NHA), which Frank Calder presided over jointly as NHA and NHL president in the period of the NHL's founding and the NHA's suspension.
According to the NHL Constitution, Article VI, section 6.1:
"6.1 Office of Commissioner, Election and Term of Office The League shall employ a Commissioner selected by the Board of Governors. The Commissioner shall serve as the Chief Executive Officer of the League and is charged with protecting the integrity of the game of professional hockey and preserving public confidence in the League. The Board of Governors shall determine the term of office and compensation of the Commissioner. The Commissioner shall be elected a majority of the Governors present and voting at a League meeting at which a quorum was present when it was convened."
In Section 6.3, his duties are spelled out as having "responsibility for the general supervision and direction of all business and affairs of the league", co-ordinates matters between member clubs and serves as the principal public spokesman for the League. The commissioner also has authority over dispute resolution, league committees, interpretation of league rules, appointment of league staff, NHL financial matters, contracting authority, scheduling, officials and disciplinary powers. The commissioner also determines the date and places of board of governors meetings.
On February 1, 1993, Gary Bettman's tenure as the first commissioner of the National Hockey League began, replacing Gil Stein, who served as the NHL's final president. The owners hired Bettman with the mandate of selling the game in the U.S. markets, ending labour unrest, completing expansion plans, and modernizing the views of the "old-guard" within the ownership ranks.
When Bettman started as commissioner, the league had already expanded by three teams to 24 since 1991, and two more were set to be announced by the expansion committee: the Florida Panthers and Mighty Ducks of Anaheim, who would begin play in 1993-94. Similar to the previous expansion cycles, the focus was on placing teams in the southern United States. The Nashville Predators (1998), Atlanta Thrashers (1999), Minnesota Wild (2000), Columbus Blue Jackets (2000), and the Vegas Golden Knights (2017) have been added during Bettman's tenure. In addition, five franchises have relocated during Bettman's tenure: The Minnesota North Stars to Dallas (1993), the Quebec Nordiques to Denver (1995), the original Winnipeg Jets to Phoenix (1996), the Hartford Whalers to North Carolina (1997) and the Atlanta Thrashers to Winnipeg (2011).
Led by Bettman, the league focused expansion and relocation efforts on the American South, working to expand the league's footprint across the country. As a result, there has been significant growth in the sport of hockey at the grassroots level with children in the U.S. South playing the game in increasing numbers. The move towards Southern markets has been heavily criticized as well, however, with fans in Canada and the Northern United States lamenting the move away from "traditional hockey markets."
Bettman has also been accused of having an "anti-Canadian" agenda, with critics citing the relocation of the franchises in Quebec City and Winnipeg and his apparent refusal to help stop it, along with the aborted sale of the Nashville Predators in 2007 to interests that would have moved the team to Hamilton, Ontario.Jim Balsillie accused Bettman of forcing the Predators to end negotiations with him to purchase the team. Bettman was satirized in this vein as the character "Harry Buttman" in the 2006 Canadian movie Bon Cop, Bad Cop.
Although Bettman was tasked with putting an end to the NHL's labour problems, the league has nonetheless locked out its players three times during Bettman's tenure. The 1994-95 lockout lasted 104 days, causing the season to be shortened from 84 to 48 games. A key issue during the lockout was the desire to aid small market teams. Led by Bettman, the owners insisted on a salary cap, changes to free agency and arbitration in the hopes of limiting escalating salaries, the union instead proposed a luxury tax system. The negotiations were at times bitter, with Chris Chelios famously issuing a veiled threat against Bettman, suggesting that Bettman should be "worried about [his] family and [his] well-being", because "Some crazed fans, or even a player [...] might take matters into their own hands and figure they get Bettman out of the way."
As a result, on September 15, 2004, Bettman announced that the owners again locked the players out prior to the start of the 2004-05 season. Three months later, Bettman announced the cancellation of the entire season with the words "It is my sad duty to announce that because a solution has not yet been attained, it is no longer practical to conduct even an abbreviated season. Accordingly, I have no choice but to announce the formal cancellation of play for 2004-2005." The NHL became the first North American league to cancel an entire season because of a labour stoppage.
As in 1994, the owners' position was predicated around the need for a salary cap. In an effort to ensure solidarity amongst the owners, the league's governors voted to give Bettman the right to unilaterally veto any union offer as long as he had the backing of just eight owners. The players initially favored luxury tax system, and a 5% rollback on player salaries -- later increased to 24%. As the threat of another season being canceled loomed, the players agreed to accept a salary cap.
Bettman quickly accomplished one of his stated goals, signing a five-year, $155 million deal with the Fox Broadcasting Company to broadcast NHL games nationally beginning in the 1994-95 season. The deal was significant, as a network television contract in the United States was long thought unattainable during the presidency of John Ziegler. The Fox deal is perhaps best remembered for the FoxTrax puck, which while generally popular according to Fox Sports, generated a great deal of controversy from longtime fans of the game.
Canadians were also upset as the league gave preference to Fox ahead of CBC for scheduling of playoff games, as Pat Hickey of the Montreal Gazette wrote that the schedule was "just another example of how the NHL snubs its nose at the country that invented hockey and its fans." The controversy repeated itself in 2007, as the CBC was once again given second billing to Versus' coverage of the playoffs.
Despite falling ratings, Bettman negotiated a five-year, $600 million deal with ABC and ESPN in 1998. It was the largest television contract the NHL ever signed. The $120 million per year that ABC and ESPN paid for rights dwarfed the $5.5 million that the NHL received from American national broadcasts in 1991-92.
The NHL's television fortunes have faded since the ABC deal, however. In 2004, the league could only manage a revenue sharing deal with NBC, with no money paid up front by the network. Also, coming out of the lockout, ESPN declined its $60 million option for the NHL's cable rights in 2005-06. While wishing to retain the NHL, it stated the cost was overvalued. However, Bettman was able to negotiate a deal with Comcast to air the NHL on the Outdoor Life Network, which changed its name to Versus to reflect their increasing live sports coverage, and was once again renamed to NBC Sports Network as a result of Comcast acquiring a majority of NBCUniversal. The three-year deal was worth $207.5 million. Bettman has been heavily criticized for the move to OLN/Versus/NBC Sports, as detractors have argued that the league has lost a great deal of exposure since moving to the much smaller network, which is often relegated to higher or specialty tiers on cable systems. In 2011 the NHL and NBC announced a 10-year, $2 billion contract.
On November 26, 2013, Bettman and NHL announced that it had sold twelve seasons' worth of exclusive Canadian national broadcast rights to Rogers Media, who would broadcast games across its numerous platforms, including Sportsnet, Sportsnet One, and City, from at a price of C$5.2 billion. Hockey Night in Canada would continue on the CBC for the next four seasons, but under a sub-licensing deal the public broadcaster would give Rogers free airtime to air the broadcasts. CBC would be allotted time during the broadcasts to promote its other programming. These moves left Bell Media and its TSN networks shut out of NHL broadcasts except for its regional properties.
Calder wielded his power as president with such authority that he was rarely opposed. When he ordered the Quebec Bulldogs franchise forfeited to Hamilton, as happened in 1920, no one challenged him. An example of his authority was when the Hamilton Tigers went on strike in 1925. Rather than talk to the players, he suspended and fined them $200 each.
Calder was adamant about not restricting minorities into the NHL. During the 1927-28 season, upon hearing of the Boston Black Panthers, the first all-black hockey team, he was reported to have remarked, "Pro hockey has no ruling against the coloured man, nor is it likely to ever draw the line," a reference to the segregation in baseball. Only one attempt to remove Calder as president of the NHL was made. This was in 1932-33 when the owner of the Chicago Black Hawks, Frederic McLaughlin, circulated a letter to the NHL board of governors to remove him. The board rejected the motion.
Commencing with the 1932-33 season, Calder named the top rookie in the NHL. Starting in 1936-37, he got the NHL's board of governors to let him buy a trophy to give to the league's top rookie and he did this until 1941-42. After his death, the trophy was made permanent as the Calder Memorial Trophy. Calder received a silver service in 1937-38 for his 20 years as president of the NHL and the league extended their appreciation.
Dutton was named managing director (acting president) of the NHL after the death of Frank Calder in February 1943, running the league at the direction of a subcommittee of the NHL Board of Governors. He was eventually convinced to assume the presidency in 1945, but in September 1946 he handed over the reins to his assistant, Clarence Campbell, a former NHL referee who had just returned from military service in Europe and had been in the job for less than a month.
As NHL president, Campbell is perhaps best remembered for suspending Montreal Canadiens superstar Maurice Richard for the remaining three games of the 1955 regular season and for the entirety of the playoffs. His action came as a result of Richard's punching of linesman Cliff Thompson during a March 13 game with the Boston Bruins (Thompson was holding Richard, allowing Boston's Hal Laycoe to punch the Rocket). On March 17, Campbell attended a game at the Montreal Forum between the Canadiens and the Detroit Red Wings. Throughout the first period he was taunted and pelted with debris by outraged Montreal fans, who saw him as a prime example of the city's English-Canadian elite oppressing the French-Canadian majority. After a tear gas bomb was released in the arena, Campbell exited the building, the game was forfeited to the Red Wings, and the Forum was evacuated. What ensued was a full-fledged riot in which 60 people were arrested and $500,000 in damage was done. The way in which the Red Wings got the win would haunt them for many years to come (more info here).
Campbell was elected to the Hockey Hall of Fame in 1966. He was instrumental in the 1967 expansion, which doubled the league in size. He kept the league alive when the World Hockey Association raided its talent in the 1970s, and often worked 18 hours a day in his office.
At the beginning of the league's expansion era in 1967, the NHL clubs decided to highlight the achievements of the league president by donating the Clarence S. Campbell Bowl in his honour. When the league realigned into two conferences and four divisions in 1974, it further honoured Campbell by naming one of the two conferences after him, and awarding the Campbell Bowl to the conference's regular-season (later playoff) champion. Although the Clarence Campbell Conference was renamed the Western Conference in 1993, the Campbell Bowl continues to be awarded to the conference's playoff champion.
One decision, for which Campbell is perhaps most widely criticized to this day, was barring Bobby Hull from participating in the ground-breaking international challenge series in 1972 that brought together the best Russian and Canadian ice hockey players in what has become known as the Summit Series. Forbidding Hull from playing for Team Canada was seen as an unjust and vicious abuse of power. Campbell's decision has been speculated to have been a bitter reaction to the start-up, rival hockey league, the WHA, which had lured Hull away from the established league (Campbell's NHL) with an offer of the then unheard of salary of 250,000 $CAN per year.
On June 22, 1992, Stein was announced as the new president of the league and formally took the position, succeeding John Ziegler. Ziegler had been forced out by owners dissatisfied with his agreement with the NHLPA, that ended a ten-day strike initiated by Bob Goodenow.
As president, Stein greatly expanded the visibility of the president's office during his term, often seen at games and being frequently interviewed on air and in print. Among his early actions after becoming president was a shake-up of league officers, ousting several vice-presidents, including Brian O'Neill, who had been the league's disciplinarian under Ziegler. Stein personally took over responsibility for league discipline, making it mandatory that suspended players pay their fines. He also implemented a policy of suspending players from practices on non-game days, instead of having them miss games. He advocated the use of NHL players at the 1994 Winter Olympics, but ran into opposition on the issue from team owners.
The league hired an executive search firm to help find a new commissioner at the same time that Stein's appointment was announced. Before the end of 1992, NHL governors selected Gary Bettman to become the league's first commissioner, starting on February 1, 1993. Stein had been a finalist for the job, but bowed out to avoid an internecine battle, and threw his support to Bettman.
When Stein's term ended on July 1, 1993, the duties of the president were given to the commissioner, a position that remains to this day.