This week in New York, NHL commissioner Gary Bettman sat down for a Q and A with Globe and Mail columnist Roy MacGregor to answer questions on the league’s lockout of players.
Q: Does the court of public opinion matter?
A: Ultimately it does.
What our fans want, what our fans believe, what our fans are interested in is why we are what we are. But, nevertheless, ultimately we have to do the things that we believe are essential for the long-term health of the game, of the league and of all of our franchises.
Q: Canadians in 2004 were petrified that they were going to lose all but one of the Canadian franchises. Today those franchises seem solid. Canadian fans are happy with what has happened – there is even one more team now (Winnipeg Jets) in the country than there was back then – and yet there is still this attitude that if there are troubled teams in the south, let ’em go. Let’s go down to 24 teams. How do you respond to this thinking?
A: In fact, when there was grave concern over the future of Canadian franchises, everybody in this league took that very seriously– that’s an understatement.
And the U.S. franchises recognized and understood the importance of the future of game in Canada and the health of the Canadian franchises. Sometimes things go in cycles.
As you pointed out, now there’s focus and attention on some of the U.S. franchises. In the final analysis, we need to be in a place where all of our franchises are healthy, because we need to have a healthy league. I hope that as important as it was for us to get the Canadian franchises healthy eight years ago, it’s as important for us to get all of our franchises as healthy now.
Q: You are portrayed as the bogeyman. There was once a time when the owners were outspoken. Everyone knew the Ballards, the Norrises, the Wirtzes. They were familiar faces and they spoke out. It’s all you now and you speak so you end up getting the brunt of any criticism. Are you comfortable with that? Do you accept it?
A: Absolutely. It’s part of the job description that you will never hear me complain about. The fact is, I view part of what I do is, if necessary, on difficult issues, be the lightning rod.
Q: Does it hurt? Surely ...
A: If you’re thin-skinned, you don’t belong doing what I do for a living. I have the support of ownership. I constantly try to do what I believe is in the best interests of this game. There are always going to be critics … and I have always had a rule: no matter how good the commentary is, or how bad the commentary is, it’s more important that you do what you think is right.
Q: It’s hard enough to explain labour negotiators to people who are relatively knowledgeable about the game, but what do you say to your own grandson, who loves the New Jersey Devils and of course wants to see them back on the ice? What do you say to him?
A: It’s hard. It’s hard to explain because first and foremost people focus on what we do as a game. And it is a game. But in order for the game to be healthy, we have to make the right business arrangements. I try to explain it as best I can, but In the final analysis when you are making difficult decisions and people are looking for quick answers, sometimes it’s just hard to get people either to be happy or just to understand. In that regard, I just urge patience.
Q: A lot of people would point out that Hockey in the last 20 years has had one players’ strike and three owners’ lockouts. And because you’ve been there, you get tagged with the lockouts and blamed. Is it possible that if someone else were head of the league there might not have been so many stoppages?
A: That would require a fair amount of speculation. I suppose that anybody in my position, knowing what I know, would have done the same things. But it’s not just hockey. The NFL and the NBA in the last year and a half have both had work stoppages, and baseball, I think prior to the last decade, had eight consecutive work stoppages. Labour relations has become a fact of life in professional sports. You hope that ultimately you get to a place that is fair and sensible for both sides. And when you get to that place, you sometimes can’t do it in one step or two steps. Sometimes it takes multiple steps. But the goal is to get to that place where you’ve got the right system, you’ve got the right arrangements and that both sides are comfortable and that it’s fair. That’s the goal.