Before 1993, presidents, not commissioners, governed professional hockey—and not always well. Love him or hate him, Gary Bettman's stature only grows when he is compared with the three men who preceded him. In the words of former Montreal Gazette columnist Red Fisher, who covered the NHL from 1955 to 2012, "I don't know if Bettman's been the best commissioner, but I know who was the worst: all the other guys."
YEARS IN OFFICE: 1946 TO '77. In one of his first acts as commissioner, Campbell, a former NHL referee, banned for life Bruins centers Don Gallinger and Billy Taylor for betting on games. Campbell's most memorable action, however, came seven years later, in 1955, when he suspended Canadiens superstar Maurice Richard for the entirety of the playoffs following a stick-swinging fight near the end of the regular season between the Rocket and Boston's Hal Laycoe—an affair that touched off a riot in Montreal as well as a surge in French Canadian nationalism. In 1980, Campbell was convicted of bribing a Canadian senator to lobby to allow Sky Shops, in which he was an investor, to continue operating a duty-free concession at a Montreal airport. The NHL paid a portion of his legal fees, as well as his $25,000 fine. Because he was 75 and in failing health, he spent almost no time in jail.
YEARS IN OFFICE: 1977 TO '92. Ziegler was VP and legal counsel of the Red Wings and the chairman of the Board of Governors before he succeeded Campbell as the NHL's fourth president—the first American to hold the job. Among his achievements were the rule making safety helmets mandatory (1979) and the merger with the WHA. But he was also regarded as out of touch, an opinion that gained credence during the 1988 playoffs. Devils coach Jim Schoenfeld had been suspended for allegedly pushing referee Don Koharski after New Jersey's 6--1 loss to the Bruins in Game 3 of the conference finals, and the club obtained a court order allowing him to coach. Irate on-ice officials refused to work Game 4, and attempts by New Jersey and league officials to reach Ziegler throughout the weekend were unsuccessful. He was forced out in April 1992, after a 10-day strike that saw the players' union win significant concessions from owners.
YEARS IN OFFICE: 1992 TO '93. Stein was the NHL's legal counsel before he took over from Ziegler on June 22, 1992. Originally appointed on an interim basis, he took over about the time the league formed a search committee to find a commissioner. His election to the Hall of Fame in March '93 was roundly criticized in Canada. Bettman, the new commissioner, promptly ordered an investigation that found that while Stein had not violated any laws, he had "improperly manipulated the process" of nomination and election.