He may resemble the Lion in Winter right now, but Gary Bettman says he’s far from done in his role as commissioner of the National Hockey League.
It has been 23 years running the NHL and Bettman is 63, with more than a hint of silver in a beard that is two weeks old. He’s fit, happy and challenged. Says he loves his job and isn’t going anywhere.
Bettman arrived in Winnipeg late Tuesday afternoon to spend some time with Jets chairman Mark Chipman.
Player safety, a trip to Woodstock, the Canadian dollar and expansion came up in a 20-minute interview with TSN.ca.
Evaluating Bettman’s run as NHL commissioner is a study in perspective. Ownership has given him wide-ranging powers and his annual compensation - all in - is reported to be in the neighbourhood of $10 million.
Bettman has delivered fixed costs, increased broadcast reach, revenue and record expansion fees that may grow in the very near future. He’s made the owners richer, which is not an insignificant measure of his work.
CBA negotiations during Bettman’s watch have been contentious (he oversaw the cancellation of a season and a Stanley Cup). Players have railed against his leadership during points of his tenure.
Hockey and football are facing huge challenges in the area of player safety, in particular the short- and long-term effect of head trauma. How Bettman and the NHL manage the health of their players remains an area of scrutiny and criticism. It will play a major role in the writing of this commissioner’s post-script.
LAWLESS: First things first, why the beard?
BETTMAN: I don't know...typically between Christmas and New Year’s I don't shave. This year, I didn't take it off.
LAWLESS: Mrs. Bettman likes it?
BETTMAN: Actually to the contrary, but we'll deal with that. I used to have one when I was younger. I would grow it in the winter and shave it in the summer and grow it back. This is only two weeks growth. I didn't want anyone to think I considered myself entitled to grow a playoff beard, so I had to grow it at a different time of the year. It's my Winter Classic beard. With the beard, we get good weather. That was the superstition.
LAWLESS: David Bowie passed this week and I'm going to guess that his music coincides with your youth, were you a Bowie fan?
BETTMAN: Generally. I'm more of the era that was The Doors and the Grateful Dead, Crosby, Stills and Nash, Neil Young, Buffalo Springfield.
LAWLESS: Did you go to Woodstock?
LAWLESS: Did you have a beard?
BETTMAN: I don't remember. If you do the math, that was a long time ago.
LAWLESS: Long hair?
BETTMAN: Yes, I had long hair. You’ll have to dig to find pictures.
LAWLESS: How did you get there?
BETTMAN: We drove. We were only there for a day because it was a little bit of a mess. When we got there it was time to go.
LAWLESS: The last time we talked long like this, there was a lot of speculation that you were going to stay as commissioner until the 100th anniversary and then maybe you might move on.
BETTMAN: No. You're stuck with me for a while.
LAWLESS: You still like the job?
BETTMAN: I love it and if I didn't, I wouldn't do it. It's also a decision that the board of governors has to make, but we are in this for a lot longer together.
LAWLESS: Safety is a huge issue in all sports. Have you made an imprint as commissioner on that area in the NHL?
BETTMAN: I believe we have. Of all of the leagues, we have been leaders in player safety, particularly on the issue of concussions and that is something we continue to work on, on a daily basis. It's something that gets a lot of time and attention because it's important.
LAWLESS: What is the next step in concussion protocol, awareness and prevention?
BETTMAN: One of the things that we have been working on this season is making sure that the spotter system is working right and we will continue to monitor it and make adjustments where necessary. If you track our history on the subject, in 1997 we were the first sports league to start focusing on it, with the players’ association. Everything we have done in this space has been with the players’ association. We were the first sports league to do baseline testing and have protocols for diagnosis and return-to-play decisions, player equipment, playing rules, softening the boards and glass, department of player safety and rule changes. These are all things that we have been doing to try and be as forward thinking as possible in an area where there has been a lot of questions and uncertainty in terms of exactly what the medicine and the science is.
LAWLESS: Peter King wrote an interesting article (Tuesday) where he basically says to the players in the NFL, in reaction to the game between Pittsburgh and Cincinnati. He says players need to look after the game and players need to look after themselves because there is an uncertainty in some of our sports and the safety aspect of it. We saw (Matt) Hendricks run (Aaron) Ekblad into the boards the other night. If we accept that you are doing your part, are the players doing their part as well?
BETTMAN: Yes. By the way, I don't want to compare football to us in any way imaginable, but the fact is that the players have gone through an education process and I believe there is a cultural change in two respects. One, with the education we have done on concussions, players are comfortable dealing with the symptoms and saying that they don't feel well and making sure that they are being properly evaluated. That is a change from a number of years ago. Secondly, players, with the rule changes, are not making hits. We have lots of examples where players are pulling up and not making hits that they would have otherwise made on the interest of player safety, so the players are getting it. Having said that, it's a fast game and things are happening instantaneously and people will make mistakes. But, overwhelmingly, if you look at the hits that are being made, the number of instances that require supplemental discipline — even with more rigorous rules — the players are defiantly getting it and that's a testament to their skill and professionalism.
LAWLESS: I believe that you told me previously that your grandson plays hockey?
BETTMAN: Yes, he does.
LAWLESS: I know you don’t want to compare football, but this conversation is about hockey as well. There is talk about safety at the lowest levels and obviously you need players to sign up to play hockey and to grow and then join the NHL.
BETTMAN: Participation is at record numbers.
LAWLESS: It is, and that's fine, but is the NHL helping or doing enough to lead safety at the minor level so that we make sure the kids are still interested and that the parents are still interested in their kids playing hockey?
BETTMAN: I think Hockey Canada and USA Hockey do a very good job of that and they are the ones that are in primary contact with organizations at the grassroots level that are conducting programs. They are the ones that put on coaches clinics. I think we are the role models; people will look to our game to see what we are doing from a safety standpoint, including rule changes that we have made. I think the efforts being made by USA Hockey and Hockey Canada have been very good and important for making sure that safety is a focus.
LAWLESS: How much of the league revenue do the Canadian teams provide?
BETTMAN: Are you talking Canadian or U.S. dollars?
LAWLESS: Boil it down for me.
BETTMAN: Seven teams out of 30 is a little less than 25 per cent, when the Canadian dollar was at par, it was somewhere in the low 30's give or take. That number continues to decline as the Canadian dollar declines.
LAWLESS: David Doyle — Bloomberg calls him the top ranked currency forecaster in North America — he says the Canadian dollar is going to 59 cents.
BETTMAN: If you believe him, you will short the Canadian dollar. I don’t know if he's right or if he's wrong, nobody does.
LAWLESS: It's low, so how much of an issue is this for the NHL?
BETTMAN: They system that we have accounts for it because we compute HRR, the cap, the minimum and revenue sharing. It's all computed in U.S. dollars and it was designed that way to deal with the fact that the players are paid in U.S. dollars and there are fluctuations in the Canadian dollar. The Canadian dollar, when I took over, was in the mid-60s, I don't know how low it's going to go. I have heard economists tell me that it was previously overvalued, now it's a little undervalued and it should hover somewhere around 80 cents. We will see. If I knew exactly what the currency would do, I would make an educated bet and invest that way. But [our] system deals with it.
LAWLESS: We are sitting in Winnipeg having this conversation and this is something that people talk about all the time because, rightly or wrongly, people point to the Canadian dollar as a reason that the Jets failed the first time.
BETTMAN: No, that's not the reason. The reason was that this market at that time, which was a different market, was having trouble supporting an NHL team that could be competitive and the team needed a new building. At the time, there was no prospect of a new building. So people can say whatever they want, but I was there and I know what happened. In the final analysis, I think the Jets are doing fine. They have great fan support and this is a different market, but that's a conversation you should have with Mark Chipman.
LAWLESS: Let’s talk offence. This has been called the dead-puck era.
BETTMAN: That's a bit of an exaggeration. The dead-puck era was when you had clutching, grabbing, hooking, holding and skill neutralization; back in the late 1990s and early 2000s when teams couldn't afford to compete. We have the best competitive balance in our history and maybe the best competitive balance in all sports. I think if the season ended yesterday, 23 teams would either be in a playoff spot or within five points, which would represent five teams in the playoffs this year that weren't in it last year. Last year, we had seven teams in the playoffs that didn’t make it the year before. Whether or not we are a tenth or two tenths of a goal off from where we were, yes, it's something you keep an eye on. But for anybody to suggest that it's the ‘dead-puck era,’ it means it's a slow news day and they are looking for a story.
LAWLESS: Where is the NHL going with fighting?
BETTMAN: It will continue to evolve as part of the game. I think what you are seeing is less emphasis on players who are skilled at that because it's more important that you can be a skilled player and potentially score as goal because the competitive balance is so tight. I think there is more of an emphasis in this competitive environment on skilled players.
LAWLESS: It's way down.
BETTMAN: It's at historic lows. We didn’t pass any rules. I have said this all along: It's a small part of the game and it will evolve, one way or another, the way the game evolves, and because the game has never been more skilled and because the competitive balance has never been greater, you are seeing teams built in a certain way. Those are the teams that mangers make and the teams that are successful are imitated by the other teams. The game is still physical as can be; the number of hits per game is, on average, 60 hits per game. It's fast, it's physical, it's intense but that's a small amount of the game. It tends to get a disproportionate amount of attention, but it's a small part of the game.
LAWLESS: Where are you on expansion?
BETTMAN: We are going through a process. You know we have two applications, one from Quebec City and one from Las Vegas. The executive committee is doing its due diligence in evaluating the issues that you have to evaluate. Expansion is an important business decision. You don’t take it lightly.
LAWLESS: Is it more now about the league than about the applicants?
BETTMAN: It's both. People have this notion of, ‘Why wouldn’t we expand for $500 million dollars?’ and then we have the money. But that's not true. When you expand, you take league national revenues and if you expand by one team you divide it by 31 ways as opposed to 30; if you expand by two teams, you divide it 32 ways and that has an economic cost. When you factor in the value of money and the diminution of your shares and existing teams in the national package, there is a cost to expanding. You want to bring in an owner that's a good owner, that's going to be a good partner. You want to bring in a building that is state of the art. You want to bring in a market that is a good market that can support the club and you want to make the league somehow stronger — enhance the league. Those are the factors that you look at.
LAWLESS: The 100th anniversary is coming up. Can you tell us what you have planned?
BETTMAN: We will be announcing that. Canada will be celebrating its sesquicentennial and we will be doing lots of things over 2017, our centennial celebration year, that we think will be a lot of fun for the fans and reflect on the great history this game has.
LAWLESS: Some people have suggested that maybe you will change the names of some of awards and rename them after, say, Gretzky or Howe.
BETTMAN: You mean for the year?
LAWLESS: No but to coincide with...
BETTMAN: Those are not the types of things that we are thinking of.
LAWLESS: Is that something that you might consider at some point in time?
BETTMAN: I don't know. There are a lot of things on the agenda. I'm not so sure that we need, at this point in time, to rewrite history.