"Some guy walks up to me and says, 'I really don't like you,'" the NHL commissioner recalled. "And I said, 'But you don't know me.' And he says, 'Yeah but I don't like work stoppages, and I go, 'Well neither do I, so we have that in common.'"
Bettman will forever take a popularity hit for three lockouts during his tenure, but he won't apologize for them. Ten years after the league ground to a halt and the 2004-05 season was cancelled, he maintains it was necessary for the health of the sport.
Pointing to the '04 Stanley Cup final between the Tampa Bay Lightning and Calgary Flames in which the team to score the first goal won each game of the series and contrasting that with the 2013 playoffs and its unpredictability, Bettman believes the on-ice product is better than ever.
To get to this point, though, Bettman said implementing the salary cap — which came out of the 2004-05 lockout — was essential.
"We had teams with 80-, 90 million-dollar payrolls and we had teams with 20-million-dollar payrolls," Bettman said at a recent Canadian Club luncheon. "And I would talk to the managers and coaches of the 20-million-dollar teams and go, 'How are you doing this?' And they would say to me, to a man, 'We clutch, we grab, we hook, we hold and we do everything possible to neutralize skill for 50 minutes and then we try to steal the game.'
"That is why the game as it was being played in the late '90s and early 2000s wasn't nearly as good as it is today."
In his 21-plus years as the first official "commissioner" of the NHL, Bettman has overseen expansion, change and booming business. In the process he has also become a popular target for fans because he has shown a willingness to sacrifice games to affect the kind of change he and the owners want.
"The game was unhealthy, the competitiveness wasn't there," Bettman said of the 2004-05 lockout. "We did what we had to do to not have six, eight or 10 years of a mess. We go through these things not because we want to but because we have to get to a point where the game can be healthy."
Now that it's healthy, Bettman doesn't look like an executive on the way out. When Bud Selig steps down and Rob Manfred takes over Major League Baseball, Bettman will officially be the longest-tenured commissioner in North American professional sports — though he insists because Selig previously had an interim tag that he already is.
"I will be the oldest when he steps down," said Bettman, who says he hasn't considered any kind of a succession plan. "I'm still trying to figure out how I got to be 62 years old."
Bettman said on multiple occasions during a public interview with George Stroumboulopoulos at the Canadian Club luncheon and in a sit-down with The Canadian Press that he loves his job and the people associated with it. After he hands out the Cup each June, the New Yorker wonders "What do I do with myself at night with no games?" and insists he hasn't thought about how long he wants to remain in his post.
"It's as long as I'm happy and excited and energized as I am today," Bettman said. "If I ever reach the point where I'm not, then I need to let somebody else do it. But it's a joint decision. It's the owners and it's me. But I love what I do and I come to work excited and energized every day."
NFL counterpart Roger Goodell is going through a crisis period amid criticism of how he has handled domestic violence and child abuse cases in his league. NBA counterpart Adam Silver recently forced Donald Sterling to sell the Los Angeles Clippers after racist audio recordings surfaced, and the Atlanta Hawks are going through a similar process.
Selig, like Bettman remembered for games not played because of the 1994 strike that cancelled the World Series, has a legacy tied to an era of performance-enhancing drugs but also introduced revenue sharing.
Pending concussion lawsuits, particularly in light of the deaths of Wade Belak, Derek Boogaard and Rick Rypien, look like the NHL's biggest concern. But Bettman has pointed to the league creating concussion study groups well before the NFL or any other sports league.
On the ice, Bettman called last season the best in an almost 100-year history and expects this one to be even better. On a personal level, he doesn't know when, or if, he hit his stride in this job but is proud of where the league is.
"The game is growing and the game both from a business standpoint and more importantly on the ice has never been healthier," Bettman said. "If that's a measure of my stride, then we're moving at a pretty good pace. ...
"It's an honour for me to be associated with the game. There's no place else I'd rather be."
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