Gary Bettman's leadership skills are about to be put to the test.
With the NHL in discussions about realignment — a process the commissioner describes as being “among the most difficult and potentially contentious issues” a sports league can face — Bettman knows it likely won't be possible to keep everybody happy.
“You do the best you can,” he said in a wide-ranging interview with The Canadian Press. “There are probably four or five clubs that would like to see something different in alignment. All of those clubs have had a chance to address their concerns and make their position clear to the rest of the board — we did that at the meeting (on Sept. 20). It's a process that's ongoing.
“But alignment isn't just geographic groupings — it's how many clubs play each other, how you qualify for the playoffs, how the playoffs play out — that's among the most difficult and potentially contentious issues any sports league can deal with. We started that process and we're going to work our way through it.”
Bettman wants a final decision to be made at the board of governors meeting in December. A new league setup requires the support of two-thirds of owners and would be put in place for the 2012-13 season.
It's been more than a decade since the NHL last changed its alignment, but the relocation of the Atlanta Thrashers to Winnipeg necessitated a shakeup. The Jets will spend this season in the Eastern Conference before moving West next year and a number of teams are eager to be shuffled around with them.
Various proposals have been discussed — ranging from a minor tweak that would see Winnipeg switch places with a Western team to a major shakeup that would see the league rearranged into four new conferences.
One governor who attended last month's board meeting said Bettman did a good job of listening to the wishes of each individual team, particularly the five that most want to be moved out of their current division (Detroit, Columbus, Nashville, Minnesota and Dallas). The goal now is to try and satisfy the various desires that were expressed.
“We have a sense of where all the clubs (are at),” said Bettman. “Looking for a consensus within what the clubs told us, we'll try to develop a framework that we think will get us to the right place.”
Once the realignment issue is settled, the commissioner will enter into an even more important set of negotiations.
The collective bargaining agreement is set to expire Sept. 15, 2012, and Bettman expects to start discussions with NHL Players' Association executive director Donald Fehr shortly after the all-star break at the end of January. While the NHL says it is prepared to begin negotiations at any time, Bettman notes that his counterpart has a “steep learning curve to get through” after taking the job less than a year ago.
“Donald has made clear to me that he still has some homework to do and preparation to do,” said Bettman. “He didn't think he would be in a position to start substantive discussions or negotiations until at least all-star (time). We have a year to go, they're not ready to talk and so as far as I'm concerned for the world this is a back burner issue.
“Let's focus on playing hockey.”
Another issue sure to take some attention away from the ice in the coming months is the ongoing uncertainty with the Phoenix Coyotes.
The NHL has been operating the money-losing franchise for two seasons while searching for a new owner. Bettman feels progress has been made on that front recently and made it clear a sale needs to happen soon.
“We're running it as long as we think is necessary and appropriate,” he said. “I hope to be out of that business certainly before the end of this season.”
Among the other topics Bettman touched on:
— On fighting in the wake of three enforcers dying over the summer: “It's something that always gets discussed. I think those who have historically been against fighting try to paint these individuals' different situations with a broad brush. And I'm not sure that that's a valid assumption.”
— On whether anything will be done to try to prevent similar tragedies in the future: “We've actually had a meeting (with the NHLPA) to discuss it. I know the Players' Association is looking to get some feedback from its initial club visits at the start of the season — getting feedback from the players before focusing on what additional steps might be taken.”
— On the new concussion protocol, which requires players with a possible head injury to be tested in a quiet area before returning to play: “We intend to enforce the protocol. I'm not using this as a forum to be threatening clubs, but everybody knows what's expected and we expect rules to be complied with.”
Bettman's image in Canada seems to have improved in the wake of the Thrashers sale to True North Sports and Entertainment at the end of May. In allowing that to happen, he started making good on a promise to try to return the NHL to cities that have lost a team.
He is currently in his 19th year as commissioner — a job that gets busier with each passing season. As a result, there isn't any one particular area he feels warrants his attention.
“When you are involved in the day-to-day administration of a sports league, there are tens of thousands of things that go on in the course of a season that people never know about and shouldn't know about,” said Bettman. “When the game is out there and people are enjoying our 1,230 regular-season games, they don't just happen (on their own).”
Team owners clearly recognize that. Bettman was reportedly paid in excess of $7.5-million last season.