Perhaps the most well-known thing about NHL commissioner Gary Bettman is that he is unpopular. He is criticized relentlessly by fans and media and the one time he is front-and-center every NHL season, he is mercilessly booed while presenting the Stanley Cup. His lack of popularity, mostly justifiably tied to three lockouts, often overshadows the positive, of which there is actually a great deal.
So while it may have been a surprise to NHL fans, Bettman was named Sports Executive of the Year by Sports Business Journal at their annual Sports Business Awards. The NHL was also named League of the Year and the 2014 Winter Classic was named the Sports Event of the Year. That's quite a haul for the league.
"While I am extremely proud to receive this award, I am more proud of the great people at the National Hockey League who helped make 2013-14 a record-setting season on a variety of levels -- including thrills, excitement and fun," Bettman said. "I also thank our Clubs, our broadcast and business partners and the best fans in sports for their support; I know that their combined power will generate an even-brighter future for NHL hockey."
Bettman has not had a perfect run in his time in the NHL's head office, but it's hard not to admire the NHL's continued growth in an increasingly saturated professional sports landscape. They have phenomenal TV deals, soaring ticket sales and revenues on the rise for the league as a whole.
The NHL commissioner faces unique challenges in sports, not the least of which is hockey still has a long way to go to reach a higher level of popularity in the United States.
The league has been chipping away most aggressively over the last decade or so, and has made significant headway in increasing the league's visibility. There's no question the game has grown throughout the United States with participation in the sport at an all-time high, in addition to rising revenues for the NHL itself.
The game is also reaching its best exposure through its TV deal with NBC Sports may have a lot to do with it. That could be one of Bettman's crowning achievements. Additionally, participation in the Olympics, the growth and success of the Winter Classic and annual excitement during the Stanley Cup Playoffs has all played a significant role.
The NHL also signed off on a new deal for its Canadian TV rights, granting them to Rogers in one of the most lucrative deals in sports. That should help position the NHL rather well in the coming years as more of its games are on TV across North America and revenues continue to spike.
The remarkable thing about the NHL is that it remains incredibly strong, if not stronger coming out of two lockouts in the last decade. It's nothing that any organization would have to hope to do, but it has not cost the NHL many fans. If anything, the league returned from work stoppages with more fans than they had before.
He may not be popular and he may not be perfect and it may be controversial to say it, but Gary Bettman is a good leader for the NHL and probably deserves some recognition for it. But that doesn't mean fans shouldn't boo him when he brings out the Stanley Cup. This league loves tradition after all.
The executive of the year award is Bettman's first win. The NHL has been League of the Year once before and the Winter Classic also won its second Event of the Year award.