Gary Bettman is one of the most unpopular figures in sports.
Public appearances, highlighted by his Stanley Cup presentations, have become a place for fans of all teams to boo and heckle the 20-year NHL commissioner largely because of three painful lockouts that the sport has suffered through during his tenure.
Even though southern and western expansion has been a widely criticized chapter of Bettman's legacy, the most memorable part of his tenure as commissioner has been the difficulty he's had with the NHLPA in labor negotiations, with the cancellation of the entire 2004-05 season at the top of the list. He's the only commissioner in the four major North American sports leagues to oversee a cancellation of a full season.
Repairing his legacy is going to be a challenging process, but with at least seven more years of labor peace on the horizon thanks to the new collective bargaining agreement (CBA), Bettman has plenty of time to improve his stock with fans and players before talk of a another lockout surfaces.
Let's look at a blueprint for what Bettman must do to fix his legacy before his tenure comes to an end.
Expand to More Canadian Markets, Quebec City Included
Bettman's strategy of expanding the NHL to gain a wider footprint in the United States has been a successful venture if you look at it from a television and league-growth perspective.
Without teams in Phoenix, Dallas, Florida and Colorado, it's possible that the league would not have a 10-year, $2 billion television deal with NBC Sports, the richest of its kind in NHL history. If these clubs didn't exist, it's likely that the sport wouldn't have enjoyed impressive growth and an increase in popularity throughout non-traditional markets over the last 20 years.
But to expand to these western and southern American markets, Bettman helped relocate franchises struggling financially in traditional hockey cities (Winnipeg, Quebec City and Minnesota) during the 1990s. These clubs were hurting for several reasons, including the weakness of the Canadian dollar, the inability to fund a new arena and being unable to attract top stars.
In most of these cases, relocating the team was the best and/or only option. With that said, Bettman still receives a lot of criticism, some of it unfairly, from angry fans in markets that lost teams due to relocation in the 1990s. Since 2000, Bettman has helped two of these markets, Winnipeg and Minnesota, get new teams.
But there are still a few places that have waited many years for the return or start of NHL hockey, most notably Quebec City. If Bettman wants to repair his legacy among Canadians, he should relocate or expand to multiple Canadian markets before he retires.
Teams are well supported in Canada (according to Forbes, all seven franchises made money in 2011-12), and there are several markets worthy of a franchise, including Quebec City, Markham and Hamilton. The Toronto Star reported in April of 2011 that "Canada can support up to 12 NHL teams, according to a new study that challenges the way the league does business."
After losing the Nordiques in 1995, Quebec City should be first on the list of markets to benefit from any future expansion or relocation. With a beautiful, state-of-the-art, NHL-ready arena under construction and expected to be finished by 2015, don't be surprised if Quebec gets a franchise before Bettman's tenure concludes.
Hockey is Canada's game, and if Bettman can increase the number of teams in the sport's birthplace to eight or nine prior to his retirement, his stock among fans north of the border should elevate tremendously.
Avoid a Lockout When Current CBA Expires
The interesting part of Bettman's hire as the first NHL commissioner in 1993 was that he had a reputation for being well-versed in sports labor. Former Board of Governors chairman Bruce McNall told Prime Time Sports earlier this year:
I introduced him to the other members of the search committee. They realized once they spoke to him and knew his substantial knowledge of the sports world and especially the issues we were going through with labor—he was the only obvious candidate at the time.
Unfortunately for Bettman, labor negotiations have never been a smooth process during his career with the NHL. He's found working with the NHLPA, including longtime union leader Bob Goodenow, quite difficult. For many hockey fans, the lasting memory of Bettman long after he retires will be the three lockouts during his tenure. Here's an incredible stat from his time as commissioner, per CBS Sports.
For Bettman to leave the league in the best way possible and make the most positive impact on his legacy, he must avoid a work stoppage when the recently signed CBA expires, which could be as soon as 2020.
To accomplish this goal, working with the NHLPA in the year and months leading up to the opt-out clause to avoid another lockout announcement must happen. Both sides need to make an effort for this to happen, but if all parties show a desire to work, it's possible that important progress can be made before too many, if any, regular-season games are lost.
Bettman could retire before the next CBA expires and leave the next labor challenge for his successor, but staying on as commissioner and successfully working through a CBA negotiation would significantly improve his legacy.
Do a Better Job of Marketing the Sport's Best Stars
One lesson that Bettman didn't learn from his former boss, NBA commissioner David Stern, is the importance of marketing superstar players to increase the growth and popularity of the sport.
Stern rescued the NBA in 1984 by promoting the sensational on-court performances and interesting personalities of basketball's biggest stars, including the Larry Bird versus Magic Johnson rivalry in the 1980s, Michael Jordan in the 1990s and LeBron James in the 2000s. The NBA became a superstar-driven league under Stern and the results have been positive.
For the NHL to appeal to more casual fans, Bettman and the league have to make a stronger effort in promoting hockey's top talents, not just Sidney Crosby, Patrick Kane and Alexander Ovechkin. The league is very lucky to have so many young stars (at least one in all 30 markets), which makes 2013 the perfect opportunity to publicize their talents through television commercials, billboards and programs on NHL Network.
The NHL has only four players on Bloomberg Sports' latest Power 100 list, which is used "to evaluate an athlete’s brand and measure his or her market value." In comparison to the other major North American sports league's, the NHL trails baseball by 10 players, basketball by 13 and football by 20. Steven Stamkos is the highest-ranked hockey player at No. 53.
If Bettman can help close the gap in popularity between the NHL and the MLB, NBA and NFL, his legacy will significantly increase. One way to accomplish this goal is to put more resources into marketing the high number of exciting stars that make hockey fun to watch and support.
Bettman's legacy should improve over time.
A lot of the positives associated with his tenure, including the exceptional growth of the game through expansion, the creation of a salary cap to save small-market teams and a record television deal, are not appropriately recognized because so much of the discussion about Bettman is dominated by failed attempts to work with the NHLPA and avoid lockouts.
The players will someday realize that Bettman made them a lot of money in their careers and also created more jobs for the NHLPA by increasing the total amount of teams in the league through expansion.
In a time when Major League Baseball is going through a performance-enhancing drug nightmare involving some of the game's best players, it should also be noted that the NHL has stayed away from the spotlight when it comes to drug/PED problems.
Bettman has affected the NHL in so many ways, but for his legacy to be improved, there are certain steps that must be taken.
Overseeing a successful CBA negotiation that doesn't result in another lockout and returning the NHL to Quebec City would be effective ways for Bettman's time as commissioner to be remembered much more fondly.
Nicholas Goss is an NHL Lead Writer at Bleacher Report. He was a credentialed writer at the 2011 and 2013 Stanley Cup Final, as well as the 2013 NHL draft.