Even as the NHL comes under attack, commissioner Gary Bettman won't have to worry about lacking support from the board of governors. That is because he quietly negotiated a five-year contract extension last November.
Bettman's current contract pays him $7.2-million (all currency U.S.) per year and was to end this summer, although the governors may have earlier picked up an option that extended it to 2012. One source said the contract extension was unanimously approved by the nine-member executive committee.
What will surely fire up the conspiracy theorists, who have been venting loudly on all forms of media following Zdeno Chara's hit on Max Pacioretty of the Montreal Canadiens, is the identity of the driving force behind Bettman's new contract. It is Jeremy Jacobs, the NHL's chairman of the board of governors who just happens to own the Boston Bruins, the team that employs Chara. However, as chairman, one of Jacobs's duties is to keep the commissioner and the other key executives of the NHL under contract.
Bettman confirmed via e-mail he received an extension. "Old news. I believe my contract has been extended four times, each time with the approval of the board of governors," he said.
One governor said he believes Bettman also reached an understanding with the executive committee that deputy commissioner Bill Daly and chief operating officer John Collins will also be retained beyond this season. Daly, who earned $1.9-million last season, would only say he does not have a contract.
Jacobs and Bettman are thought to have a close relationship and at least one owner thinks the contract extension smacks of cronyism but some of his fellow governors differ. One said Jacobs made the move with an eye toward the end of the collective agreement in September, 2012.
The governor, who did not wish to be identified because Bettman does not allow governors to speak publicly about the inner workings of the NHL, said the board wants to head into negotiations with the NHL Players' Association with solidarity on the management front. It does not want any perception Bettman could be a lame-duck commissioner if he does not have a new contract.
However, the criticisms of the NHL by team owners in recent weeks are unusual. The first was Pittsburgh Penguins co-owner Mario Lemieux, who felt suspensions handed to two New York Islanders players for attacks on Penguins players were too lenient.
On Thursday, Habs owner Geoff Molson released a public letter to Canadiens fans in which the team owner knocked the NHL for refusing to suspend Chara for the hit that left Pacioretty, a Canadiens forward, with a fractured vertebra and a concussion. Molson called on Bettman to make player safety a priority at the annual NHL general managers' meetings in Florida next week and volunteered to be a leader in the effort.
"I am asking for the support of the 29 other NHL owners, to address urgently this safety issue," Molson said. "And I am willing to play a leadership role in co-ordinating this group effort."
There was another letter Thursday that drew headlines and the ire of Bettman, that one coming from an Air Canada executive. The airline threatened to withdraw its sponsorship from the league if steps were not taken to reduce violent hits to the head.
Since Air Canada also is the official carrier for all six Canadian NHL teams and five based in the United States, which brings in more than $20-million a year for the airline, Bettman issued a counter-threat.
"Air Canada is a great brand as is the National Hockey League and if they decide that they need to do other things with their sponsorship dollars, that's their prerogative," Bettman said. "It is the prerogative of our clubs that fly on Air Canada to make other arrangements if they don't think Air Canada is giving them the appropriate level of service."
Bettman staunchly backed the league's decision to impose no additional punishment on Boston's captain, who was assessed a five-minute penalty for interference and a game misconduct while Pacioretty lay motionless, face down on the ice for more than five minutes before being immobilized on a spinal board and taken by ambulance to hospital.
"It was a horrific injury; we're sorry it happened in our fast-paced, physical game," Bettman said on Capitol Hill. But he said the decision not to further sanction Chara for the hit during the Canadiens-Bruins game in Montreal on Tuesday was widely praised by the other teams.
With a report from Paul Koring in Washington, D.C.