In conversation: Gary Bettman

What he thinks of future franchise relocation, the Aaron Rome hit and the culture of the game

What he thinks of future franchise relocation, the Aaron Rome hit and the culture of the game

Photograph by Christopher Wahl

A franchise move, a new discipline czar, a controversial hit, and a see-saw Stanley Cup final; it’s been a busy couple of weeks for the National Hockey League’s commissioner. Prior to Game 5, he sat down to reflect on a season of wins and losses.

Q: Not presuming any outcomes, but what would a Canadian team winning the Stanley Cup after such an extended period of time mean for the game of hockey?

A: I think it would be tremendously exciting for fans of the Canucks. But in the final analysis, who wins the Cup isn’t as important as how good the final was—how exciting, how dramatic, how entertaining, how skilful. If you’re a fan of the Canucks—or Bruins—you’ll be excited beyond belief if they win. If you cheer for somebody else, you’ll be more interested in how good the hockey is.

Q: When the NHL returned to Winnipeg, you talked about how Canada is the heart and soul of the game, and how this was, in a manner of speaking, the righting of a wrong. But at the same time, you’ve told fans in other Canadian cities not to get their hopes up. Why not?

A: Because we resist, to the extent possible, franchise relocation, and we’re not considering expansion. The point is, we had no choice when we left Winnipeg in 1996. We tried everything possible, but no one wanted to own a club there any longer. To be able to return under different circumstances, where the franchise can be successful, it’s nice to be part of a corrective situation. But we don’t want fans in other markets thinking the same thing might happen when a) we’re not looking at a particular ownership group, b) there may be building issues, and c) there may not be franchises available.

Q: The new Winnipeg franchise sold 13,000 season tickets in just four days. What message does that send to you and the league’s board of governors?

A: All it does is confirm what we believed: that there are a lot of passionate hockey fans in Winnipeg.

Q: You’ve said that if the Thrashers sale hadn’t been completed on May 31, it may not have happened at all. Why?

A: There were issues of timing about getting ready for the season, and issues about whether the parties were ultimately going to reach an agreement. This deal was in a fragile state. When I got on the plane to go to Winnipeg, the documents weren’t signed.

Q: The hockey media has always speculated about trades, or player signings or injuries. Why does their speculation about the health of franchises make you irritated?

A: The fact that most of it is wrong. It causes expectations to be raised in some places and disappointment to set in elsewhere. On the day we opened the playoffs, there was a definitive report that the Phoenix Coyotes were moving to Winnipeg—that it was a done deal. Well, it wasn’t true. No only was it not fair to fans of the Coyotes, it had a markedly disruptive impact on the players themselves.

Q: Is this more of a Canadian problem?

A: Oh, no, no, no. I’m not going there! I think the media world is adjusting to the digital age. We went from journalism in newspapers that gets heavily edited, to blogs, where you can express your opinions, to tweeting, where you can say anything, and it gets repeated and becomes fact when it isn’t. It’s something the entire world is going to have to come to grips with. I’m not complaining, I’m just somebody who has had to react. I was at a game where people said I wasn’t paying as much attention as I should, because I was responding to 150 emails saying a deal was done, and Atlanta was moving, when it wasn’t. Having to respond to things that are made up or untrue tends to be a waste of time.

Q: The first franchise to move in 14 years turned out to be Atlanta, but many people thought it was going to be Phoenix. Why were the Thrashers less salvageable than the Coyotes?

A: The simplest answer is that the city of Glendale was prepared to make a substantial investment to keep the Coyotes there.

Q: There has been criticism of you in the Atlanta press for not being publicly present to save that franchise, like you were in Phoenix. What’s your reaction to that?

A: It’s a little off target. We obviously had to be more visible with the Phoenix franchise because the league owned it. And we were extraordinarily active with the ownership in Atlanta over the last two years to try and identify prospective owners. We mourn the loss of Atlanta, but we found ourselves in a situation where nobody wanted to own the club there anymore. People fell into three buckets: they were interested, but had no money. Or they looked at the documents and then concluded they didn’t think this would work. Or they were people who were trying to shop the franchise to other people. But nobody real ultimately emerged.

Q: The snap analysis has been that the Thrashers’ move proves the NHL’s expansion into non-traditional, Sunbelt markets has failed. Is there any truth in that?

A: I think that analysis is ridiculous. All this speaks to is that Atlanta didn’t work for a variety of unique reasons. Look at Tampa Bay, which resurrected itself with new ownership, and Carolina, Dallas and Anaheim, who all have Stanley Cups.

Q: Do you see the league someday going back to Atlanta for a third crack at it?

A: I never rule anything in or out, life can surprise you. Do I think it will happen in the next couple of years? No.

Q: Over the years, you’ve intervened to save a lot of franchises—Pittsburgh, Buffalo and Ottawa among them. As commissioner, how much time is spent dealing with problem teams?

A: People have this notion that when an issue comes up, everything stops and we just focus on it. I spend most of my time making sure the league is running smoothly and that the game on the ice is exciting and entertaining. Every sports league has franchise issues. Ours tend to be magnified because of the interest that places that don’t have franchises have in getting one, hoping that a franchise will be ill enough that it has to be moved. And overwhelmingly, that doesn’t come to pass. It’s taken us 14 years to move one.

Q: Speaking of people with an interest in ill franchises, there’s a report that you’ve told RIM’s Jim Balsillie he might someday own a team if he behaves himself. Is that true?

A: No. I haven’t had any conversation with Jim about owning a franchise in the future.

Q: Let’s talk about some of the successes. The new U.S. TV deal with NBC is $2 billion over 10 years. What does that mean to the NHL?

A: It means we’re a hugely valuable television property. And as importantly for our fans, it means we’re going to have unprecedented coverage. Between NBC and the renamed Versus, they’ll be 100 regular season games and every game of the playoffs. That’s national U.S. exposure that this sport has never seen. And we’re going to be cross-promoted on 20 other networks and 43 digital platforms that reach 125 million people a week.

Q: With NBC winning the broadcast rights to the 2014 Winter Games, does that make it any more likely that we’ll see the NHL in Sochi?

A: We haven’t changed our view. It was never discussed in our negotiations. And this is a decision that we have to make jointly with the Players’ Association and it’s not something we’re ready to address.

Q: When you took over the league in 1993, revenue was $400 million. After the 2005 lockout it was $2 billion. This year it will be close to $3 billion. Where has that growth come from?

A: It’s coming from media, from filling our buildings, and it’s really coming from the digital platforms that didn’t exist 10 years ago—, the NHL network, NHL radio. We’re connecting with our fans in ways that didn’t exist in the past. And it’s coming from big events like the Winter Classic. We’re just doing more business, in more ways.

Q: There was an Ontario court decision last week overturning your new $400-million sponsorship deal with Molson Coors, the biggest the league has ever signed. How will that affect the bottom line?

A: I’m not going to comment on pending litigation. The matter will be appealed.

Q: Your deal with the Players’ Association expires in the fall of 2012. In your estimation, does the league have the kind of revenue split it needs to be successful in the future?

A: When it’s time to have substantive discussions, I will have them with the union first, before—or if—I ever have them publicly.

Q: You were at Game 3 when Aaron Rome laid out Boston’s Nathan Horton. Do you get angry, or turned off by what you witness on the ice?

A: When I see something I wish I didn’t see, it’s more a sense of wasted opportunity. Here we are in the final, with our biggest audiences of the year. I know we’ll be judged by our response to it, but you always wish things out of the ordinary wouldn’t happen, so people could stay focused on the game.

Q: You’re calling for even harsher suspensions for head shots next season. Why do the players seem to be so slow to get the message that you want these hits out of the game?

A: I’m not sure it’s fair to say that. This is a fast and physical game—contact is encouraged. NHL players are not only consummate professionals and the best athletes in the world, but they risk injury because of the physicality of the game. Our job is to keep the essential elements of the game intact, but try to provide for as much safety as possible. We’re trying to change the culture. We’re not going to punish for the sake of punishing, but to create a safe environment.