On a melting morning in January at a Montreal boulangerie where the heavy chandeliers are as spectacular as the airy croissants, Kevin Tierney is discussing one of his movies. Tierney co-wrote and produced Bon Cop, Bad Cop, a 2006 bilingual comedy that remains one of the top-grossing Canadian films. It's in the police/buddy genre, with the mismatched partners hailing from opposite sides of Canada's linguistic and geopolitical divide. The plot centers around a crazed fan seeking revenge because big league hockey teams such as the Quebec Fleur-de-Lys are moving south of the border. On his hit list is the commissioner, Harry Buttman, played by a 4'7" actor in a cheap wig—a thinly veiled caricature of the NHL's diminutive commissioner, Gary Bettman.
"All English Canadians have opinions about French Canadians, and all French Canadians have opinions about English Canadians," says Tierney, 62, working on his second coffee. "And all Canadians share an opinion about hockey: Americans have sold out our game.... At the center is this Napoleonic figure. Gary codifies the ugly American, a greedy f--- who stole our game and put it in s---faced American towns where they don't care." Tierney pauses, flashing a grin tinged with mischief. "Essentially [the name Buttman] is the equivalent of a fart joke. But Gary's easy to caricature. Instant. Just add water and stir."
Like the bon cop and the bad cop, Bettman knows both sides of the street after 20 years on the beat. At his pay grade, a reported $8 million a year, Bettman is required to be both the firm-handshake leader who represents the business of the league and the foam-finger guy who poses as the No. 1 booster of the game, toggling among owners, sponsors, networks, players and fans while keeping all these stakeholders enthused. "The complex human algorithm," NBA commissioner David Stern calls the job. Those requisites do not distinguish Bettman from Stern or the NFL's Roger Goodell or MLB's Bud Selig. Bettman's job might seem less consequential than some of his counterparts—NFL revenues exceeded the NHL's $3.3 billion by 188% in 2011--12—but it is infinitely more complex than most. With 23 teams in the U.S. and seven in Canada, he must confront a variety of borders—geographic, cultural and even linguistic—as well as a yawning divide between where the power lies and where the passion runs deepest: His league is on the periphery of the American experience for many, in the marrow of Canadian life for most.
Bettman is a human Rorschach test, a man who practically begs for a response. Says Kevin Westgarth, the Hurricanes enforcer who was a member of the NHLPA's negotiating committee, "Not many hockey fans would waffle or not have an opinion on Bettman." While he has grown the footprint of his league in the U.S., many in Canada want to leave their footprints on his prostrate body. He has been called the worst commissioner in sports history. He also has made the NHL a thoroughly modern league, expanding it from a licensing company into a media company.
At 5'7"—not 4'7"—Bettman is a small but inviting target after three lockouts, including one canceled season. The numbers will be etched on his tombstone. But Bettman, 60, is very much alive. His current deal runs through 2016--17, one year before the NHL's centennial season, and he has received multiple contract extensions since he took over on Feb. 1, 1993. He says his health is good. When the new CBA expires in 10 years (or eight, if either side exercises the reopener clause), Bettman could still be there for aggrieved players to kick around. Or vice versa.
During the lockout, Stars winger Erik Cole, a veteran of the previous two, ordered 30 caps emblazoned WITH PUCK GARY. (The slogan is not exactly an ode to the workin' man, but provocative headgear has limitations.) Cole handed most out at NHLPA practices. Three remain. They are tucked in a closet, like resentment toward Bettman now that the truncated season, which began on Jan. 19, is half over.
The anger was visceral. Red Wings defenseman Ian White assailed Bettman as "an idiot." Panthers winger Kris Versteeg called Bettman and deputy commissioner Bill Daly "cancers" and said they should resign. Canadiens left wing Brandon Prust tweeted, "bettman's autobiography is in stores now. It's titled 'how I destroyed a sport and a nation.'" (Hint: The nation wasn't Luxembourg.) And Blackhawks center Dave Bolland re-tweeted a fan's "can I get a RT for wanting Bettman dead?" The last was a faint echo of Chris Chelios's chilling remark early in the 1994 lockout, when the Chicago defenseman said, "If I was Bettman, I'd be worrying about my family, my well-being."
"For the players, this wasn't an owners' lockout, it was 'f------ Gary's lockout,'" says ex-Canadiens winger Mathieu Darche, of the union's negotiating committee, who retired last month. "Fair? Probably not."
The players have retreated. Strategically, at least. Versteeg volunteers that it was tasteless to compare the commissioner to a malignancy. When the question of Bettman's resignation is raised, however, Versteeg says, "I've not given it any thought. If I ever give it any thought again, it might be around the time we're negotiating the next CBA."
When he announced the labor settlement at 5 a.m. on Jan. 6, Bettman looked the way any grandfather who had just pulled an all-nighter might. Exhausted. On Feb. 26 in his 15th-floor Manhattan office, in dark suit pants and a crisp white dress shirt, left foot propped on a coffee table, he appeared invigorated, a man comfortable in his seemingly thick skin. As an undergraduate at Cornell in the early 1970s, Bettman studied industrial and labor relations. He grasps the dynamic, knows the drill. "How many times [do] CEOs involved in labor disputes have nasty things said about them by people who they are disputing with?" Bettman asks, shrugging. "Happens all the time."