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NHL commissioner Gary Bettman speaks to the media in New York September 13, 2012. The league and the players collective bargaining agreement ends at midnight on Saturday. (CARLO ALLEGRI/REUTERS)
NHL commissioner Gary Bettman speaks to the media in New York September 13, 2012. The league and the players collective bargaining agreement ends at midnight on Saturday. (CARLO ALLEGRI/REUTERS)

Eric Duhatschek

Gary Bettman: King of the castle Add to ...

Duhatschek: Touché. But I’m reading your words at [the PrimeTime Sports Management Conference] last week. You say there’s no formal expansion plan, but people are coming to you with expansion inquiries all the time. In my mind, when people hear ‘no plans for a formal expansion,’ they are hearing you say no expansion period. I know how precise you are with the language and so when I hear you say people are pitching ideas all the time, I’m hearing a ‘maybe’ there.

Bettman: Because of the way my words get scrutinized, I have to use a level of precision so people don’t accuse me of misleading them. There are people expressing interest and I’m not denying that. But we’re not turning that into a formal process to move forward. Could that change in the future? It could. And is it no forever? Nothing’s forever. I’m trying to be as open and honest and clear as possible and while it may not satisfy either your journalistic or emotional needs, what I’m saying is completely accurate.

Duhatschek: I still think some time soon, someone will come to you that has a new building and a big pile of money and say, ‘Gary let us operate in Seattle.’ Or Quebec. Or wherever. And you will say, ‘That makes sense from a business perspective,’ and you’ll do it.

Bettman: When people call us and say we’re interested, we listen – because you never know what life will bring you.

Duhatschek: Let’s move on to player safety issues. I understand the overriding theme – keep the physical play in hockey, but minimize the number of concussions and other injuries because injuries aren’t good for the business of hockey. But not everyone thinks the pace of change is moving along fast enough.

Bettman: This is a physical game. The players want it physical, that’s how they make their livelihood. The fans want it physical, that’s the nature of the game, but we want to make it as safe as we can. If you go back four years, a shoulder hit to the head was legal. If you go back four years, maybe guys were less willing to admit they were feeling symptoms of a concussion. Part of what we’re doing through rule changes, equipment changes, medical research and medical protocol is change the culture of the game from a safety standpoint in a positive way. We’ve encouraged players who are having symptoms to come forward, get treated – and they’re doing it.

Duhatschek: Well, most of them are.

Bettman: But it’s not like throwing a light switch. It’s a cultural change. But [reporting concussion symptoms] is more acceptable than it’s ever been and more players are willing to do it. In fact, we’re hearing stories of teammates encouraging other teammates to do that. Two types of hits that were perfectly legal in the game four years ago are not – and that evolved. So with hits to the head, we started [banning just] blind-side – and decided that wasn’t enough. Now, if the head is the main point of contact, it’s not acceptable. We’re looking, with the [NHL] Players’ Association, at equipment. We have, in the course of a season, 55,000 hits. We’re trying to get rid of about 100 of them – which isn’t going to reduce physicality but is going to make the game safer for the players who get hit in the way everybody agrees is objectionable. This is a process, one that we take very seriously and one that we’re working very hard with, with the players.

Duhatschek: Do players, coaches, managers, fans understand that you are trying to shift the line in terms of what is allowed and what isn’t? Sometimes, I don’t think they get it. Whenever there’s a discipline hearing, you always seem to have GMs or players argue, ‘That was always okay in the past.’

Bettman: The thing that makes me scratch my head, whether it’s a player or a coach, is when somebody says, ‘I don’t understand the ruling, the rules are confusing.’ Brendan [Shanahan, the NHL discipline chief] has put out 100 videos. We couldn’t be any more transparent about what’s okay and what’s not. Just watch the videos. No sport has ever done that. His only instructions from me are, ‘Do what you think is right. You’ve got 21 years of NHL expertise. You’ve recently come off the ice. You know how the game is played.’ And by the way, he knows when someone’s trying to sell him a bill of goods.

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