GARY BETTMAN IS IN A GOOD MOOD. Two days earlier, an independent arbitrator upheld the league's rejection of the Devils' first attempt to sign Ilya Kovalchuk. The decision backed Bettman's belief that the 17-year, $102 million deal was just a blatant end run around the NHL's salary cap. It was the latest validation of Bettman's stature as the most dominating commissioner in pro sports. Even the August sun, pouring through a wall of windows into Bettman's Manhattan office, seems to shine for him. He's relaxed, even cheery, in pleasant contrast to his reputation as a pugnacious and humorless know-it-all who looks as if he were born in a dark suit. At the moment, he's even in shirtsleeves -- blue tie knotted at his throat, but shirtsleeves nonetheless. "Whatever you want, we're happy to help," he says.