Gary Bettman has been commissioner of the NHL for more than half the Buffalo Sabres' history, taking over his post on Feb. 1, 1993, after serving as senior vice president and general counsel for the NBA. Bettman, the longest current serving commissioner in the four major pro sports, was inducted into the Hockey Hall of Fame last November.
The Buffalo News sat down with Bettman recently in his New York City office to get his thoughts on some key moments in Sabres history and on the team's 50th anniversary. Here is the bulk of that conversation, which was lightly edited for clarity.
Buffalo News: In recent years, you've celebrated milestones like the 100th anniversary for the Montreal Canadiens, Toronto Maple Leafs and the league itself as well as the 50th anniversary for the old West Division teams who joined in 1967. What's it been like to see these celebrations and see the teams relive their histories like the Sabres and Vancouver will do this year?
Gary Bettman: What these celebrations represent to me is the depth and strength of our game and our fan bases. I get to hear stories about people who have been passionate about this game for their entire lives, whether it's a 20-year-old or an 80-year-old. I get to hear stories about people who have been married for 50 years and their first date was a hockey game. I get to hear and see the passion that people have for our players and our game and perhaps as important, this is a game that has always respected its history. To see that history acknowledged over and over again both at the league level and by the clubs as they're celebrating their milestones, it's one of the great treasures.
BN: Coming from the NBA as you did, how did you study each team and what did you know about the Buffalo Sabres when you started as NHL commissioner?
GB: Coming from the NBA seems like a lifetime ago, but what I knew about Buffalo was there was a local ownership group (the Knox family) that was committed to Buffalo. It is obviously not one of the largest cities in North America and a city that went through economic travails as the nature of the economy changed, but I knew from the outset the people associated with the team were committed to Buffalo and Western New York and that was something that, no matter who has owned the club, has been a dominant focus for the Sabres. The first time I went to a Sabres game in the old building (Memorial Auditorium), it was clear to me what this team represented to Western New York. And that's never changed.
BN: So much of the Sabres' trip to Sweden will center around Rasmus Dahlin. We saw so much hype around him as the No. 1 pick in the draft and then seeing the way he went through the season, how encouraging is it to see an 18-year-old come through all of that attention and really live up to it?
GB: It was great to see, but it's not just about what you do over the first year or second year but over the length of his career. But you look at the commitments the team has made long term to Jack Eichel, Jeff Skinner. Then they add Dahlin and it shows how Terry and Kim Pegula are committed to doing this the right way.
BN: How is the selection of the Sabres for the trip a reflection of the league's view of ownership?
GB: The city is always first or second in local television ratings because people in Buffalo are great sports fans and great hockey fans and they love the Sabres, but let's talk here about Terry and Kim Pegula and what they represent. I remember vividly Terry's interview with our Executive Committee when he was coming into the league and the two things I remember the most are how he said to the assembled group of owners that were there, 'This is a dream come true. I've been a Sabres fan all of my life. I loved Robert, Perreault and Martin, loved the French Connection. For me to even be a part of this organization is a dream come true.' That was the first thing I remember. The second was, 'I'm a fan first and foremost and I want to do everything possible to make the fans of the Sabres happy, enthused and excited.' Certainly fans in Buffalo should feel that way about their team taking part in these games.
BN: We've seen Kim Pegula take on a bigger role in recent seasons as well. What's your view on that role and what went into the decision to have her join you as co-chair for the league's Diversity and Inclusion Senior Leadership Council?
GB: Kim is very committed to the important social causes we think our league and our clubs represent. We want to make a difference in people's lives. She declared to me from the outset that these were things that were important to them as well. I love her energy, her passion, her smarts. I love her commitment to do all of these things and she was a very logical choice. She actually comes to more board meetings than Terry does! (Bettman noted at the 2018 Stanley Cup Final that Kim Pegula's role has advanced as a point person for the franchise much like Susan Samueli often represents her husband, Henry, at league meetings for the Anaheim Ducks.)
BN: We saw the Carolina Hurricanes break a long playoff drought and get to the East final last season. There is a lot of hope in Florida, even though the Panthers haven't won a playoff series since 1996. The Sabres now have the longest playoff drought in the league (since 2011) and haven't won a series since 2007. From a league standpoint, with all the parity currently in the game, how disconcerting is it seeing certain teams struggle and not be in contention for a long period of time?
GB: Struggle isn't the word I would use. Teams simply get in different cycles of development and we've seen there are really no shortcuts. The Sabres have some great young prospects on the team, there's some seasoned veterans, there's a new coach and it's about getting all the pieces to fit. I know fans in all markets can get impatient because they want it fixed immediately, but it doesn't happen like that. A team that's going to be good for the long run has got to be built and developed the right way. What's good about Terry and Kim is they have the resources and they are committed to getting this team to be a winner, to be competitive year in and year out. And once they get to that plateau, I think they'll be there for a long time.
BN: How much do you share the curiosity of the hockey world to see how Ralph Krueger will do in Buffalo after what happened with Team Europe in the 2016 World Cup?
GB: Ralph is a really smart tactician. He knows motivation for players and within sport. He knows our game. I think he's going to do very well. I really think it was a very thoughtful and creative hire the Sabres made.
BN: You were once the owner of the Sabres during the post-John Rigas bankruptcy era. Was there ever a time, a moment where you said to yourself this franchise may not be salvageable?
GB: No. Not once. I think whether it's Buffalo or anywhere else, we have a pretty good track record of sticking by our markets for as long as possible. I knew firsthand the passion of Sabres fans and I knew the importance of the Sabres to Buffalo and the entire area. Being from Cornell (University), I had familiarity with Western New York and we were committed to finding the right owner. Interestingly enough, Tom Golisano didn't know much about hockey, wasn't a hockey fan. His principal interest when we went to see him in Rochester was knowing this was important to Western New York and that's why he stepped up. He turned out to be a terrific owner for us. He was simply focused on the importance of this team to Buffalo.
BN: Initially he didn't get the bid. What was your recollection about when you circled back to him about getting back into the process to purchase the team?
GB: All I really remember was that he wanted to do it because it was important and that's why he was committed. I described Terry coming in as a fan and the emotional connection he had. Tom's emotional connection was different. Terry and Kim were obviously focused on the well-being of Western New York and being the caretakers of this institution but at that time, Tom was focused on what it would do to Western New York if the team moved. He knew that he could do what had to be done to keep the team there. It was a difficult time for the league. Everybody was surprised at what happened to the Rigases and Adelphia and not just what happened, but the speed at which it unraveled. That's why we as a league stepped in. It happened so quickly we needed time to find a new owner.
BN: How important was Tom, not just for ownership of the Sabres, but as a guy who spoke at times on behalf of small-market clubs at a tumultuous time in the league?
GB: At times? You mean all the time? One of the great things about Tom was you always knew what he was thinking because he was never bashful about sharing. He was focused on what was necessary for a club in a smaller market to be not just successful but very competitive. He had help from Larry Quinn in terms of the hockey expertise and they were a good duo for us in terms of the day-to-day operations.
BN: A major aspect of the Sabres' history just had its 20th anniversary and there were many stories done on the finish of the '99 final, both in our paper and around North America.
GB: Oh, that? (Smiles)
BN: Yes, that. You're probably surprised it took this long for the question to come. So what are your first reflections on the finish of Game 6 of that series as we sit here more than 20 years later?
GB: That was a goal. The two things when I think back on that is that the building must have expanded its capacity that night because, based on the people I've heard from, there must have been 250,000 people at that game. And people tend to forget that even if that wasn't a goal, it was Game 6. It doesn't mean Buffalo is winning Game 6 or Game 7, but the fact is it was a goal. There were interpretations sent out during the year. I understand people in Buffalo feel badly about it and have differing recollections in terms of what was right and wrong, but isn't that part of the magic and aura and lure of sports when things out of the ordinary take place?
BN: Have there been things operationally the league learned from that situation when it was debriefed?
GB: In terms of how the rules work, particularly with the introduction of video replay, we've never forgotten about that night in Buffalo. Not whether the call was right or wrong because it was the right call, but in terms of how the rules are enforced, the perception of how they're enforced and what people, particularly in the media, know and understand about what we're doing. That situation has always made me feel that we have to go out of our way to be completely transparent.
BN: Do you wish there was more transparency that night?
GB: It wasn't that there was a lack of transparency (officiating supervisor Bryan Lewis did on-air interviews with television networks and spoke to reporters immediately after the game). There was confusion. And if the confusion was our fault and I guess it was, we needed to do a better job of making sure by being transparent so there was less confusion and people understood. So whatever we do now – and I think we're very transparent with rules and replay and tweeting out why calls are made – while it's not directly related to that game per se, in the back of my mind there's always a lesson learned from there.
BN: Things seem to be going well on the arena front with the New York Islanders and Calgary having deals in place for new buildings.
GB: And we have a new owner in Arizona. People in Buffalo, among other places, know what a difference that can make.
BN: Many of the '90s arenas have had major renovations or are in the middle of ones now. How much dialogue do you anticipate with the Pegulas on KeyBank Center, which is probably next in line in the league for needing major work?
GB: The Pegulas have not been bashful about committing resources to the City of Buffalo. Look at what they've done in the area surrounding the arena (with LECOM Harborcenter). It's spectacular. It's not a surprise we hold the combine there because our clubs love it and it works so well. We hold our Officials Training Camp there as well. I go there every year for that. In terms of what they have done downtown and what Delaware North has done (with its corporate headquarters and the Westin hotel), they are forward-thinking and at the forefront. My guess is at some point, if they're not already, they're looking at both of their facilities (KeyBank Center and New Era Field) for the longer term. The fact that they basically are everything having to do with the major-league sports market in Buffalo is a plus. It demonstrates an incredible commitment to that city, to the economy, the people who live there, the quality of life and sports fans.
BN: What's your reaction when you get those television ratings in Buffalo during the Stanley Cup playoffs?
GB: I smile big. I think it's great. It reinforces something I learned quickly and have known for 26 or 27 years. It's just a great, great hockey market.
BN: Can you envision what it would be like if they could get back to their level of play in '99, '06, '07?
GB: We started to see it last year during the (10-game) winning streak. It was unbelievable last season in Buffalo when they were on that tear. It was really fun to watch.
BN: You have Buffalo and Vancouver going on their 50th anniversary road this year. How much league involvement is there?
GB: If there's a particular ceremony the club wants us at, we will attend. If there's a particular game that has significance, we will attend. I try to get everywhere during the course of the season. Our effort at the league level was to focus on the NHL 100. The clubs will tailor their individual celebrations to their fans and we're here to be completely supportive for them and celebrate with them. Sports and hockey gets handed from generation to generation. It's something that people of all ages share and it's a common experience that brings communities together. There's really no better example of that than the Buffalo Sabres.