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.
Q: It’s believed that in both the NFL and the NBA the original positions that the leagues staked out were, in fact, lower than the split initially proposed by the NHL this summer. Is this correct?
A: Our first offer was obviously a starting point for negotiations.
Q: When you came back in 2005 the game was essentially reinvented. From what I’ve seen, attendance went up and revenues went up. Baseball came back in the early 1990s from a work stoppage and it wasn’t successful right away at all. But you can’t reinvent a game every time as NHL hockey did in 2005. So it has to be assumed your preference would be not to have a lockout and bring the same game back so that you maintain the success the league had as recently as just last season. Is this fair to assume?
A: Last season was phenomenal. We’ve had seven terrific seasons. Our competitive balance is not only the best that it’s ever been for hockey, it may be the best that any sport has ever seen – and that is a direct function of the system that we have and how it works. We need some adjustments to that system to keep the game heading in the right direction and to keep the game healthy. That’s why we find ourselves in the negotiations that we are in.
Q: When it was settled in 2005, not only was the game improved but the owners felt that they had a good deal, the Canadian ownership is proof in the pudding, surely, that it was a good deal there. But now the owners say it’s not a good deal. How is it that costs and other issues require that you relook at this arrangement?
A: It’s been my practice not to negotiate publicly, so I am going to try to adhere to that. But The fact is the cost of doing business, particularly in the recessionary environment that we have been through, has increased daily. Our single largest cost is, obviously, costs related to the players, whether or not it’s salaries or everything else that goes into making sure that they are appropriately treated, or just to put on the games. What we’re focused on is a system that works. Since costs in this recessionary environment have gone up so dramatically – I’m told that the fuel that flies the planes that we use to move the players around in has gone up 175 per cent in the last five years. Other costs have gone up, perhaps not as dramatically on a percentage basis, but in a recessionary environment it has become more difficult to do business. And even though we have done a good job in growing revenues, the fact is we have spent a lot of money in the last seven or eight years reinvesting in the business and in the business of the game. Probably what I’m describing isn’t unlike the experiences in football and in basketball and, in both of those sports, the players recognize the need and appropriateness of taking a decline in their percentages.
Q: Prior to the very end of this last collective agreement, there was a flurry of player signings, some contracts running as high as $100-million over 13 years. Is that helpful?
A: Not particularly, but it was perfectly acceptable under the system. And it highlighted one of the issues under the current system. These long-term, back-diving contracts are really attempts to circumvent the system. And the fact that they have become so prevalent has actually pointed out the need to fix it. I know that lots of people look at what they did and scratch their head. I can understand how they could be complaining about it. Our clubs are fiercely competitive. They will do whatever a system allows. And they will push the limits to the very edge. These contracts are not something we envisioned when we made the deal eight years ago.
Q: Some players have suggested that the CBA was allowed to die because it was really going to be owners vs. owners, not players vs. owners or owners vs. players.
A: Absolutely not. Not true. The fact is the owners are completely unified and they all understand the importance of having a healthy and strong league. I know there has been a lot of discussion and debate about revenue sharing. That’s not an issue from our standpoint. Never has been. We have repeatedly said we are prepared to expand the coverage and increase the amounts. That’s just a red herring. The owners are completely informed and completely unified.
Q: Would it be a red herring when it is said the NHL will threaten to cancel the Winter Classic, which has become the single most important event of the year for the league? Is this potentially a leverage position?
A: I don’t like the use of such terms that you use, with all due respect, of ‘threaten’ and ‘leverage.’ There will come a point, I am sure, where we will have to make a decision where we will have to begin spending millions of dollars to create the event. That’s not something we do on Dec. 31. It’s something that months in advance we have to start working on. When I am advised that the financial commitments are going to have to be made, we are going to have to evaluate whether or not we are comfortable making those expenditures and commitments – if there is still uncertainty.
Q: What is the single hardest concept to get across to the public without talking in detail about what the back and forth has been?
A: I’m not sure it’s about a concept. If I’m a fan, I want my hockey. And I am not really sure I care who is right and who is wrong, I just want it fixed. I understand that. I respect that. I am a fan. I want my hockey. And it’s something that drives us 24/7 to try and get it right.
Q: That is certainly what I sense – people do not care about the details, they just want to see hockey.
A: First and foremost, we’re fans. Putting aside the players, who obviously play for love of the game as well as the financial aspect, there are thousands of people who work at the clubs, who work at the league and we are all in this because we love the game. This is hard for everybody.
Q: Will the Olympics be decided in the CBA that should come out of these negotiations?
A: I know that we are going to be addressing international issues. … I think we’re in agreement on this that as we address the international aspects of the game going forward that We have got to look at everything: the Olympics, the World Cup, the world championships and the various things that we think we can do to extend the reach of the game worldwide, even more than it already is. I don’t view that as a bargaining chip for either side. I view that more as problem-solving and working together to figure out the right solution.
Q: A lot of people say that there should be a mediator involved. If I’m not mistaken back in 2004 (then Canadian) Prime Minister Paul Martin called for just such a solution. Is that a possibility?
A: Typically, mediators are used when one side or another is looking to change the expectations of their constituent. I believe that both sides fully understand each other, fully understand the nature of the issues. If I thought a mediator would be helpful I would of course agree to it. But nobody is suggesting it at this point.
Q: Can hockey survive another lost year?
A: I sure hope we don’t have to find out.