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Hockey's New Playmaker


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HOCKEY'S NEW PLAYMAKER

Watching Gary Bettman work can be as dizzying as watching a hockey puck carom around the ice. One moment he's dashing into an office; the next, he's striding down a corridor waving a stack of papers. Then, a whirlwind chat with his secretary sends him racing behind his desk where he returns a couple of phone calls before running into another meeting. "Gary is a peripatetic workaholic," says Bettman's old boss, David J. Stern, commissioner of the National Basketball Assn. "There's no amount of work he doesn't happily take on."

As the new commissioner of the National Hockey League, Bettman, 40, may have found nirvana. After all, he's getting paid $1 million a year to lift the 76-year-old NHL into the big league of pro baseball, football, and basketball. And there's nothing in his way--except the NHL's insular culture, warring players and owners, and lowbrow image.

Bettman's biggest challenge is boosting the 26-team NHL's public profile. "Right now, major-league hockey is underestimated and underappreciated," Bettman says. And underwatched: Hockey is the only major-league sport without regular-season exposure on one of the Big Three television networks.

COBWEB SWEEPING. So Bettman is working to make the game more accessible. Next year, the NHL will bid farewell to its Campbell and Wales conferences and realign its teams into the more straightforward Eastern and Western confer-ences. And the new commish is brainstorming ways to make the game more television-friendly. Under consideration: electronic enhancements to make the puck show up better, souped-up audio, and mobile overhead cameras. "The technology of television should work hand-in-hand with Bettman," says Kevin O'Malley, vice-president for sports programming at Turner Broadcasting System Inc. "Hockey's a great spectator sport, and he should be able to translate that to television."

The NHL isn't famous for putting aggressive promoters at the helm. Under former President John A. Ziegler Jr., who resigned after the 1991-92 season, the NHL missed the 1980s' sports boom, making little effort to expand its audience. In 1988, to take a prime example, the league ditched ESPN for a three-year run with SportsChannel America. The deal brought the NHL $51 million but sliced viewership from 50 million to 9 million overnight. Last year, the league accepted $80 million over five years to return to ESPN, which reaches virtually every cable-TV household in the U.S.

This isn't the first time Bettman has tried to sweep the cobwebs off a sport. When he signed on with the NBA in 1980, the league was scraping bottom. Drug scandals had tarnished its image, four teams were near bankruptcy, and players and owners were at war. Bettman was Stern's point man in cleaning up the league, instituting a drug-testing and rehabilitation program, and negotiating the landmark salary cap that brought financial stability to basketball. And above all, says Charles Grantham, executive director of the NBA Players Assn., Bettman understood the need for "proper marketing of the players."

DISNEY TIE-IN. Before he can market the NHL's stars, though, he'll have to earn their goodwill. Hockey players are deeply suspicious of the owners, and their strike last year nearly forced the cancellation of the Stanley Cup playoffs. Another round of labor negotiations starts next fall, with the union already warning that it wants more than just an NBA-style revenue-sharing arrangement. "You just can't take the NBA template and flip it over," says Bob Goodenow, head of the NHL Players Assn. At the top of the players' agenda: overhauling the NHL's pension plan, liberalized free-agency rules, and substance-abuse programs.

Labor peace would clear the way for an all-out push to conquer the U.S. heartland. It's no accident that the owners of the two newest franchises in the NHL are Blockbuster Entertainment Chairman H. Wayne Huizenga and Walt Disney Co. Huizenga, whose team's home ice will be in Miami, is looking into ways of promoting hockey through his Blockbuster Video stores. And Disney intends to name its squad after the team in its 1992 hockey film, The Mighty Ducks. That should help Bettman get all his ducks, er pucks, in a row.Ron Stodghill II in New York


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