The Interview: Gary Bettman

NHL commissioner Gary Bettman on Canada, the ‘covenant’ with fans, Gretzky and on trying to do the right things

The Interview: Gary BettmanIn 16 years as NHL commissioner, Gary Bettman has shaped pro hockey in numerous ways—U.S. expansion, two lockouts, rule changes, the salary cap, the participation of NHL players in the Olympics. The past year, however, counts among the most troubled of his tenure. The league’s tug-of-war with billionaire Jim Balsillie for control of the Phoenix Coyotes put Bettman at odds with many fans, highlighting the combative side of the commissioner’s personality. Earlier this week, he discussed the fallout of Phoenix, fan antipathy toward him, and other hockey-related matters with the Maclean’s editorial board.

Q: It’s been a tumultuous couple of years for you, at least publicly. Do you still enjoy your job?

A: I love the job. I’m passionate about the game, and the people around the game, the way we as a sport connect with our fans. Every job has challenges, things that make the job interesting. I’m not exactly sure, by the way, that I buy into your characterization of tumultuous. That seems to be a little dramatic, perhaps media-centric, as opposed to the reality. But every business has day-to-day challenges, and that’s part of what gets those of us who work going every day.

Q: We want to give you a chance to respond to the broad perception here in Canada that you feel the future of the game lies in the United States—and that the real reason the NHL was in court this summer was to keep Canada from getting more teams.

A: I’ve got to ask you a question about your question. Where does that perception come from? What is it based on? Give me any factual basis and I’ll answer the question.

Q: Well, we could start by pointing you to some of the public opinion polls that emerged during the court process.

A: That’s based on the coverage, not necessarily the reality.

Q: So you’re saying the negative perception of you is the media’s fault?

A: No, I’m not. I’m saying it’s not based on anything. Look, what was going on in Phoenix was an attempt to, not just circumvent, but eviscerate all of our rules and procedures as to the two most important decisions that any sports league has to make: one, who’s going to own franchises and be partners in the league; two, where your franchises are going to be located. That was what Phoenix was about.

Q: Based on feedback from our readers, it’s safe to say most Canadians don’t see it that way. A lot of them saw a struggling franchise in Phoenix, a willing owner in a proven hockey market and the league actually buying the team to stop that prospective Canadian owner from getting control of it.

A: Okay, let’s look at a little history. When Edmonton and Calgary were struggling and there were other places that perceived they could do better because the dollar was stronger, we fought to keep them. Ottawa and Buffalo and Pittsburgh were all struggling and other places felt that they could do better. But we believe we have a covenant with our fans, who make an emotional and financial investment in us. If you run out on them in one place then you’re delivering a message that maybe you don’t take that covenant seriously anywhere. There was a point in the early 1990s when some said there was only going to be one team left in Canada. We never believed that, and everything we did with the Canadian Assistance Program, and with the new collective bargaining agreement, was to ensure that small-market teams—particularly small-market Canadian teams—not only could survive but could be fully competitive. And that’s what you have.

Q: You used the word “covenant” to describe the bargain between the league and its fans. What about the covenant that existed between the league and the fans in Winnipeg, and the fans in Quebec City?

A: We had the same covenant there and we lost in both of those cases. Both teams were struggling. Both needed new arenas and there was no prospect of the arena coming from any source. And the bottom line that differentiates it from all the other cases we’ve talked about, including Phoenix, was that nobody wanted to own a team there anymore. That’s when you reach the end of the line.

Q: But, respectfully, who wants to own the team in Phoenix?

A: Let’s back up. We had a prospective buyer and I was attempting to deliver the offer on May 5 when they put the club into bankruptcy. What then happened was [Coyotes owner Jerry] Moyes, in conjunction with others, did everything they could to make the franchise unsaleable. Through the summer, they lost the personnel, there was no selling of any tickets. They were trying to destroy the franchise so it would have to move.

Q: That seems a lot to lay at the feet of Mr. Moyes. Surely if there was a viable fan base in Phoenix those fans would be demonstrating it now. Instead, as few as 5,800 show up to games.

A: With all due respect, what do you know about the operations of the Phoenix Coyotes? Do you know that they lost most of their staff over the summer? Do you know that most of their employees quit? Do you know that they sold virtually nothing because of all of the uncertainty? Do you know that in the bankruptcy court proceedings season ticket holders were being sent information that says you’re going to lose your season ticket deposits? That the sponsorships weren’t able to be renewed? That they’re doing as well as they are, I think, is pretty good. Time will tell whether or not this franchise was actually destroyed over the summer. We believe that it can be resurrected, and if we’re right then there’ll be a new owner and the team will be there. If we’re wrong then we’ll have to deal with that.

Q: And how is the search for a new owner going?

A: We’ve actually just got it out of bankruptcy court in the last week or so. But we are in discussions with a number of groups.

Q: Prior to this summer, did you see operational problems with the Coyotes?

A: This team wasn’t particularly well run, and in a challenging economic climate, coupled with a variety of other factors, it was less than ideal circumstances. Listen, we have a pretty good track record of fixing these things—Winnipeg and Quebec notwithstanding. And you know, there’s been a lot of speculation about Quebec City getting another arena and wanting a team, and that’s something we’re going to want to look at, at the appropriate time.

Q: What about southern Ontario?

A: If we’re relocating, or if we decide to expand, then we’ll see who the applicant pool is, where they want to play, and it’ll get a very good, hard look. We don’t have this master list somewhere where we’ve ranked cities.

Q: Do the Toronto Maple Leafs in fact have a veto on another team locating in southern Ontario, as they claimed in a letter they wrote you that was submitted to the court in Phoenix?

A: They have the same vote as everybody else in the league. One-thirtieth. It’s a majority vote. They have no veto. That letter was a reservation of their rights, and it’s three or four years old. The fact of the matter is, we’re on record with the Canadian Competition Bureau, we’re on record in the proceedings in Phoenix. They do not have a veto.

Q: Are the Leafs on the same page as you on the issue today?

A: I believe they are. And even if they’re not, it doesn’t matter because they don’t have a veto! Even if they think they do, they don’t. Let’s be precise: relocation requires a majority vote [of NHL governors]. An expansion team, because you’re admitting a new owner, requires a three-quarter vote.

Q: Is there no sense among owners that the goose that lays the golden egg is in southern Ontario, waiting for you to take it—for the league to have another very profitable franchise?

A: You assume a lot of things. You may be right on all of them, but they’re all assumptions that haven’t been studied.

Q: You don’t think it would be a slam dunk that a second franchise in southern Ontario would be profitable?

A: I have no doubt that they would fill up the building. I don’t know what their media arrangements would be in an area that is very saturated. Is Copps Coliseum the right building? Who’s going to renovate it? Should there be a new building in Kitchener or Waterloo or London? Is it easy to get in and out of Hamilton 41 nights a year? These are all questions where, if we get to that point, have to be determined.

Q: Let’s talk a bit about how the league is weathering the recession so far. The early season figures for attendance in a lot of NHL cities seem to be down.

A: It’s all over the lot. I think about half the clubs are up, half the clubs are down. We’re probably, if you take Phoenix out of the mix—which is a unique circumstance—I think we’re somewhere around flat or within a percentage point.

Q: Do you think that you have some markets that are unduly soft?

A: I think there are places that can improve, absolutely.

Q: Ones that you’re worried about having turn into a potential Phoenix situation?

A: No, no. When you refer to a potential Phoenix situation, you’re talking about a bankrupt club. Phoenix didn’t belong in bankruptcy.

Q: Jerry Moyes was losing a great deal of money.

A: He was losing, I don’t know, $20 million to $25 million a year. Okay, so that happens to clubs occasionally. It’s happened to clubs that are doing quite well right now. The fact of the matter is, that club went into bankruptcy because Mr. Moyes was trying to get money from something that he didn’t own. He owned Phoenix, he didn’t own someplace else. You know, I’ve made it a point of not really discussing what Mr. Balsillie did and why, because for me this was never about Mr. Balsillie, this was about our rules. I know you keep asking the questions that point in that direction. But I’d like you to be clear that’s not really something that I think is particularly important for us to discuss. The other side made this very personal, and the only way we could demonstrate from our standpoint that it wasn’t was by not responding to the personal attacks.

Q: The legal files and the legal strategy that suggested that he was unsuitable as an owner. That wasn’t personal?

A: Not by me. The owners decided they didn’t want him as a partner.

Q: Still, it’s hard to remember a one-year period of time when there was as much media scorn, fan anger kind of directed at you. That can’t have been easy.

A: I sensed it in some quarters, but it wasn’t universal. I would submit if you went across our fan base most people would probably tell you they understood what we were doing and why. Listen, I know that we were the subject of a campaign that we decided not to participate in or even try to defend ourselves. We pride ourselves on trying to do the right things. And this notion of tumultuous, I’m not sure I get it. We came off an incredibly successful season, our Stanley Cup finals may have been the most viewed in years, our attendance for four years in a row set a record, our revenues four years in a row—all coming back since the work stoppage—set a record.

Q: You were booed when you presented the Stanley Cup—and that was in the United States.

A: I was booed presenting the Stanley Cup in Detroit to the Pittsburgh Penguins. Had I been presenting it in Pittsburgh I probably wouldn’t have been booed.

Q: It’s been suggested there’s some sort of rift between you and Wayne Gretzky, who was coaching the Coyotes and believes he was owed $8.2 million when the league bought the Coyotes out of bankruptcy. Is there?

A: No, not on our side, and we have made it very clear that we will be extraordinarily helpful and proactive in trying to help him recover what he believes he’s entitled to. Other than the fact we haven’t offered to make a payment right now—on something that really isn’t our obligation—I’m not sure there’s much of an issue. This is something that will continue to work itself out over time.

Q: Let’s switch gears from Phoenix.

A: Really? Okay!

Q: The NHL, probably more than any other sports league, is a custodian of the game. Here in Canada, surveys conducted by Reginald Bibby, a well-known sociologist, show a steep decline in the proportion of young people following the league compared to past decades. There are also stats that show, over the past 15 years, fewer young males are playing the game. Do these trends worry you?

A: Obviously we want our game and our fan base to continue to grow, and that’s a priority to us. I haven’t had a chance to review the Bibby report in depth, but two things jumped off the page at me. One, it appears that all the major sports are down pretty dramatically, and we’re still number one in Canada. Two, that part of it relates to diversity. Our following in families where the parents and the child were born in Canada was vastly different [higher] than where either parent or the child was not. All sports and all forms of entertainment find themselves in a more fragmented place than ever before, because of access to everything through digital media. Is it something we’re focused on? Absolutely.

Q: You talked about opportunities to grow the game and showcase it. Obviously one of those is the Olympics. Yet there’s no commitment to continuing on with them after Vancouver.

A: If you want to put any responsibility as to why we even go to the Olympics in the first place, I’m the one that did that. I thought it was the right thing to do, and I made the arrangements with the Players’ Association, with the IIHF and the IOC. We haven’t said we’re not going to Sochi [Russia in 2014]. We’ve just said we haven’t made a decision, and that seems to have snowballed into something bigger, like we’re anti-Olympics. Stopping our season in the middle is not without its impact. We get to February, we’re about to hit the stretch runs. Teams are firing on all cylinders, the races are close and it all comes to a stop. We have some teams, because of the arenas they play in, who don’t have a home game for three or four weeks, and you kind of lose the consciousness among fans. Then there’s the competitive issue. If you’re an NHL team with a diverse international roster you could send a dozen players, while another team might send one or two. That doesn’t mean you don’t go, it means you balance the pros and the cons. If we go to Sochi, it’s eight hours time difference from the East Coast of North America. Every game’s going to be played between four in the morning and two in the afternoon, live. You tell me—is that worth it, to shut down and impact, potentially, your season? I don’t know the answer.

Q: So did you make an error joining the Olympics in the first place?

A: No. I mean, it’s been a mixed bag. Salt Lake City was great, okay? Vancouver will be great. If you go back and you think about it and you look at the coverage and everything else, Japan and Italy, not so great.

Q: Back, briefly to Balsillie: given all the water that’s under the bridge, is there any chance he could become an NHL owner?

A: There’s a lot of water under that bridge. There’s so much water some could argue the bridge washed out. I’m a believer that it’s a long life and I would never say never. But let’s not get hysterical with the headline. It’s not something that I foresee any time soon.

Q: Is it true you ran into him in the bathroom at the courthouse in Phoenix?

A: Yeah. I said, “Oh, hello.” I mean, where else should you be more cordial than in the restroom?

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