Gary Bettman apologizes for being a few minutes late for a scheduled 3 p.m. sit-down interview with a reporter at his 15th-floor office, which offers a breathtaking, nearly panoramic view of midtown Manhattan.
He’s just finished off a Power Bar, he says, in lieu of a real lunch. At 62, the NHL commissioner, in his 22nd year on the job, remains as much of a workaholic as ever. On the floor outside his office is a beehive of activity, with numerous glassed-in conference rooms housing people in meetings over various items of league business.
And business is good these days.
A league that just 10 years ago essentially had no guaranteed revenue from a U.S. television contract now has a $2 billion, long-term deal—and a much bigger one ($5.2 billion) in Canada.
A league that just 10 years ago became the first in pro sports history to lose a full season to a work stoppage now has long-term labor peace—though, granted, it took another lockout after that to finally get there.
How did this all happen? Bleacher Report recently visited the Commish to get answers to that and discuss the seemingly brighter future of the NHL:
Bleacher Report: I’d like to posit a theory as to why I think the NHL’s fortunes have turned around, and you tell me if I’m wrong. It goes something like this: The NHL became more popular because it decided to play hard to get. You guys stopped trying to be “mainstream,” stopped going after the fence-sitting, fly-by-night sports fans and focused back on your base again and said to hell with the rest. And that, in a sense, made people want what they couldn’t have. In short, you stopped trying so hard to make people like you, and that made them want you more.
Gary Bettman: No. Sorry to burst your bubble, but it all comes back to the game. We wanted to be the best we can be. I don’t want to sound like the old Army poster, but the vision we had was, if we could be the best that we can be, when you start with the game, and the players, and you find a way to give your fans the best possible experience—it would attract avid fans to be more avid and it would attract casual fans to be more interested.
It all started with having the game as good as it can be. That isn’t as simple as passing new rules. It goes to the fundamentals of having a system that gives you the best competitive balance in sports and it then means reaching out to your fans through sponsors, through events and the like to give them a way of connecting to the game that is a great experience. It’s an interesting theory, but that’s not the way we focused on it.
B/R: Maybe I was thinking more about what happened with ESPN, and telling them no.
Bettman: (We said no), because they weren’t going to give us what we needed, OK, and I don’t mean just the money. Because it was clear to me—and they had been good partners, and they grew ESPN2 on our backs—but the fact of the matter is, with everything they had and the way they were going to program and promote us, we were never going to be able to grow the way we envisioned the way we thought we could.
The money was simply a reflection of, "if that’s how you value us, then we’re not as valuable to you as we believe we are." I know a lot gets written and discussed about some of the decisions we made, but the decisions we made as we were making them were fairly easy when you understood all of the facts.
We needed something bigger and better for us, OK? Now, obviously we needed to take an alternate or unorthodox route to do it, but we weren’t going to get there doing the same old same old. We had to, in addition to seek excellence, we had to dare to be different.
B/R: But, come on, you say it was easy, but saying no to ESPN at that time—or any time, for that matter—you knew would come with a lot of criticism and even ridicule. That couldn’t have been that easy. You went to OLN and then Versus, two networks nobody had heard of, for almost no money, when you could have at least still been partners with the biggest sports-media company in the world.
Bettman: We were never afraid to make difficult choices, whether or not that relates to TV or to collective bargaining. We had a vision as to what we needed in critical areas, and we saw it through.
Sometimes, when you’re trying to turn an aircraft carrier, it takes a while to get it to swing around. But if you know where you’ve got to go, it makes the path to get there a little easier. It’s not that we were playing hard to get (from ESPN). We could have been gotten, if it was what we thought we needed.
B/R: After the ’04-05 lockout, it seems like the league made a conscious choice to embrace social media more than other leagues, starting with a really good website. You did an end-around the national U.S. media that seemed to be losing interest in the game.
Bettman: Historically, particularly on a national basis, we were underserved by traditional media. Over the last 20 years, the combination of the digital platforms and the advent of HDTV probably has enhanced our experience with our fans more than any other sport. It was important for us to be in a position to use these new and exciting tools.
B/R: OK, so we’re almost 10 years past the season-ending lockout, which was fought over one thing: the salary cap. Some still hate it, but players all thought the introduction of a cap would be the ruination of the game, but today the average salary of players has never been higher. You probably won’t brag, but how much of an I-told-you-so feeling do you have these days over that?
Bettman: I’m not an I-told-you-so kind of person, although I actually had a former player in my office today who lived through 2004 and said to me, "If I only knew then what I know now." But it’s not an I-told-you-so; we had a vision as to what we needed to do to fix fundamental problems, to get the game healthy, so that it could grow. We couldn’t do it under the old way.
If you go back to 1999, 2000, 2001—we had clubs in those days with payrolls four times the size of other clubs. I used to talk to, without mentioning any names, coaches on the less well-endowed clubs and I’d go, "How do you do this? What’s your game plan?" And universally in those days, (the answer was) "clutch and grab and hook and hold. We had to neutralize the skill differential, and then we’d try and steal it in the last 10 minutes."
That was not how this game was meant to be played. And so having an economic system where all clubs could afford to be competitive was vital to the health and well-being of the game. I used to say that at the time and people would roll their eyes, but I always believed it and to this day I believe it’s true.
B/R: The cap still has its critics, but most everyone agrees it has helped create more competitive balance through the league. That was one big thing that has made the league healthier, and the rules changes to the game coming out of the 2004-05 lockout—the Shanahan Summit—is another. The other big thing that helped in the comeback was the introduction of the Winter Classic in 2008. It’s become a franchise, with record-shattering attendance numbers. Take us back to when the idea for it all came about.
Bettman: John Collins had been in contact on a number of issues with Jon Miller, the head of programming at NBC. New Year’s Day isn’t what it used to be; the college bowls have all been diluted, and NBC had an open window. John said to Jon—I’m not sure which John to Jon—"What if we tried this?" Edmonton had tried a game a few years earlier (the Heritage Classic) and everyone said, "Let’s see what we can do here."
My John came into me and said "OK, hear me out. This is what I think we should do." And we didn’t talk about it very long. I said, "Obviously it’s risky, but if you think we can pull this off and we’ve got it covered, let’s go for it. What’s the worst thing that can happen?" The worst was that it would be called the stupidest thing known to man and we’d get yelled at, but you’ve got to dare to be different. And so we did it.
I’ll never forget walking onto the field in Buffalo and looking around. It was snowing and I’m looking at 70,000 people and I’m saying "Wooow." The sheer magnitude of it. I got that feeling again last New Year’s Day in Michigan, with 105,000 people this time. Watching the fan engagement, watching the fans tailgating, watching families with lots of young kids there—it was a remarkable connection between our game and our fans. Obviously it did well on television and it took on a life of its own, but it was almost in an organic sort of way.
While the outdoor game conceptually takes us back to our roots, skating on frozen ponds, the experience was as organic and holistic as it could be. It was communing with the game in the great outdoors, with mother nature. Sports is the ultimate reality show, and we just added another layer with the weather. It’s become bigger and more impactful than anybody could have imagined.
The game in L.A. was breathtaking, right down to having Kiss play, to Wayne Gretzky dropping the puck to people biking around the infield by the ice thinking they were on the boardwalk on Venice Beach. But when we lose one to the weather, everyone will go "see, we told you."
B/R: We had six outdoor games last season, and two slated for this winter. Have we found a happy medium in there for outdoor games of the future?
Bettman: The happy medium, yes, is somewhere between two and six. Last year, we had very important reasons for doing the six. We wanted to do something big before we took off for the Olympics, and we had to do an extra game in New York, to be inclusive to all three teams in the New York-New Jersey metropolitan area, and then we wanted to do something big when we came back from the Olympics and gave NBC something to promote during the Olympics and we wanted to do a game in Canada. The reason we have only two this year it that it’s become such a big deal in-market, clubs want more time to build up to it than just a few months. (In the future) I think you’ll see us do more than two, but not more than six.
B/R: OK, now for the expansion question. The league has 30 teams, with 16 in the East and 14 in the West. Reports have flourished in the last year or two about the league supposedly expanding to places like Las Vegas or Quebec or Seattle or Markham, Ontario. How high on your agenda is expansion right now?
Bettman: Well, yes, we’re getting lots of interest. And at some point we’ll have to make a decision, but we’re not at that point.
B/R: When do you think you’ll be at that point?
Bettman: This isn’t a 60-minute game. I don’t have to worry about the clock running out in 60 minutes. The fact of the matter is, at the appropriate time we’ll make a decision one way or the other.
B/R: Or other?
Bettman: Or other.
B/R: OK, concussions. It doesn’t seem like we’ve heard as much about them this year, which obviously is a good thing. Is the data in on that?
Bettman: It’s a little too early to compile the stats. The spike that we went through a few years ago was because of better reporting, better diagnosis and better education so players were more comfortable coming forward. So there was a spike where it was, "OK, here’s everything you need to know, here’s how we’re going to treat them and things that may have been ignored in the past are now being documented. And there’s been a steady decline since then.
B/R: You were the first major pro sports league to be proactive on concussions, with the first baseline testing, starting in 1997.
Bettman: We were the first sports league to have a panel with the Players Association and the medical community to address it. We were the first sports league to have a protocol on the diagnosis and return-to-play decisions. We changed the rules, we softened the boards and glass, we changed equipment, we created a department of player safety—all of those were firsts. What other league does supplemental discipline explaining their result on a video? All in the name of education and transparency.
B/R: And yet, the NHL is facing a lawsuit from ex-players seeking damages regarding concussions and brain injuries.
Bettman: We believe the lawsuits are without merit and we’re going to vigorously defend them. (Editor note: The NHL subsequently filed a motion to dismiss the case).
B/R: Fighting is way down this year. Is it on its way out for good soon?
Bettman: Right now, we’re seeing a fight about once every three games. The game will continue to evolve. It always does. I think part of it is the competitive balance is so tight. There’s more of an emphasis on skill, so teams are making a judgment as to how they want to allocate their spots.
B/R: Domestic violence has obviously been in the news a lot around pro sports. It hasn't been in the news as much with the NHL, but there was a recent, alleged incident regarding L.A's Slava Voynov. You received good press for swiftly attending to it, but how much does it concern you?
Bettman: The Voynov situation is still an open issue. There are still some things that need to be determined. But I am extraordinarily proud of our players in general and how they conduct themselves on and off the ice.
B/R: Could we see a team in Europe?
Bettman: I don’t see that in the foreseeable future. Logistically, there are existing leagues already there. The focus is going to be on North America. It doesn’t mean we won’t do some international competitions, it doesn’t mean we won’t play some regular-season and exhibition games and do a whole host of other things for our presence to be felt and to encourage the development of young players there. We think we have a worldwide role, but I don’t think you’ll see franchises for the foreseeable future anywhere other than North America.
B/R: Moving to a little more light-hearted banter, do you have a favorite saying in life?
Bettman: As people who work with me and my kids will attest, I have lots of them based on the circumstance. But my biggest is, you’ve always got to do, in the final analysis, what your heart tells you is the right thing to do.
B/R: If Gary Bettman is not at a hockey game or doing hockey-related business, what is he most likely to be doing on an off night?
Bettman: Well, you’ve got to assume I have an off night. But I like to have family time. I like to ski. I like to golf. I ski better than I play golf. I like to jog. I like to watch my grandchildren (two of them) in their activities. I like to spend time with my wife (Shelli) of 39 years. But there isn’t a lot of downtime. It’s nonstop. This is a 24/7 lifestyle, and if you’re not comfortable with that, you have to go do something else.
B/R: The “legacy” question: Are you focusing more on that these days?
Bettman: No, I don’t focus on legacy. I’m going to work hard to do the best that I can do and people will judge it some point I’m sure, or continue to judge it. But I love what I do. I can’t imagine doing anything else. I get up each morning energized and excited. It’s a great opportunity to work with great people, with a great game and great fans. And do some social good, too.
Sports is a powerful platform. Whether or not it’s Hockey Fights Cancer or Hockey Is For Everyone or our diversity programs, we have the opportunity to be visible in lots of ways and to do good things. It’s not just about making fans, it’s really not about that at all, it’s about making a difference in peoples’ lives by using hockey to teach life lessons: hard work, teamwork, diligence, getting a good education. To me, being able to give back to our community is as important as anything else we do.
Adrian Dater has covered the NHL since 1995 for The Denver Post. Follow him on Twitter @Adater