Gary Bettman: "The Canadian franchises and Canada as a market for NHL hockey has always been a priority for us." (Richard Lam/Canadian Press)
The NHL commissioner talks about European expansion, the Nashville situation and Mark Bell's suspension
Last Updated Weds., Oct. 3, 2007
By CBC Sports
Gary Bettman is well aware what Canadian hockey fans think about him:
That he doesn't give a fig about the NHL's Canadian clubs. That he's only interested in the health of the game in the United States. That he'll do everything in his power to prevent an American team from relocating to a Canadian city.
Hogwash, says the NHL commissioner.
"The Canadian franchises and Canada as a market for NHL hockey has always been a priority for us," Bettman told Hockey Night in Canada Radio on Wednesday.
Bettman defended his record as a valiant protector of the interests of the NHL's six Canadian teams and discussed several other hot-button issues in a wide-ranging interview with HNIC Radio co-hosts Jeff Marek and Elliotte Friedman.
Here are the highlights of their discussion:
How do you define success with regards to the two Ducks-Kings games that were held in London, England, to open the regular season?
If you look at it from the standpoint that we announced the games in London and within two weeks they were completely sold out with really no advertising or promotion other than the announcement, that's a success.
If you were at the games and you saw the enthusiastic crowds and the makeup of the crowds - and by that I mean I met a lot of people who came from California, there were a number of native Brits who were excited to see NHL hockey, there were a number of American and Canadian ex-pats wearing jerseys, and there were a number of Europeans, other than Brits, wearing local uniforms of their teams - it was a very hockey-enthused crowd. From that standpoint, it was good.
Logistically, it worked well but it was also a bit of a test. London being the closest major market on the other side of the Atlantic, getting in an arena with an owner we knew and were familiar with, and [seeing if] we could we pull it off and create a competitively satisfactory experience for the players, that was important and the feedback I got from the players in terms of how they were treated and the experience was very positive.
That said, we have to see how the teams readjust and overcome the jetlag … it was a good, fun experience. It was a good way to dip our toe in the water [but] we're not putting franchises in Europe anytime soon, if ever. But it was a way for us to connect with what is a market, Europe, which is very hockey-centric because a third of the league's players come from outside North America.
Will you go back to Europe with a Pittsburgh Penguins-Tampa Bay Lightning game next year in Prague, as reported by some American newspapers?
There's been a lot of talk about that but we're still debriefing. We know that's an option for us to consider, we have to decide whether or not what we want to do that, or if we want to do something else instead or maybe do that plus something else. We're not there yet. I'm still getting over jetlag. [laughs]
David Freeman, the leader of a local group trying to purchase the Nashville Predators, said he isn't hopeful that a deal can be worked out. What do you think about the entire Nashville situation? And why wasn't Canadian billionaire Jim Balsillie allowed to buy the team and move it to Hamilton?
We don't look ahead as an attempt to abandon a market. When Ottawa was in bankruptcy, we did everything we could to keep the Senators in Ottawa, and look at the results. When Buffalo was in bankruptcy, our first instinct wasn't to abandon Buffalo. When Edmonton was having problems, our first instinct wasn't to abandon the market. We owe it to our fans better than that.
Nashville has a lease [with the club's Sommet Center home arena] and I know a lot has been reported on this, most of it wrong. Nashville has a lease that goes for more than 20 years. They may get out of the lease if their attendance isn't at a certain level for this season, and in that case, we won't do anything to try to undermine Nashville's ability to keep the team in the interim, but if it turns out that it's got to go at the end of this season, then we'll look at all the options at that time.
We never said "Yes" or "No" to Hamilton. Hamilton was never an issue for us - the only issue for us is that if somebody wants to buy the Nashville Predators, then they're buying the Nashville Predators. You're not buying the Nashville Predators and the promise of something else down the road. That's not the way we historically have done business.
What about with the local ownership group looking to back out of the deal…?
The local ownership group isn't looking to back out. There's a negotiation that's ongoing and, again, I think we're getting too ahead of ourselves and there's too much speculation. The reports that I'm getting are that it's not done but that it's headed in the right direction. They don't own the franchise yet, they're not scheduled to close [the deal] until the end of October, we haven't completed our due diligence or our process, [so] I think everyone needs to slow down on this issue.
Maybe Nashville will work. I hope it does. But if it doesn't, then we will deal with it but the conclusion as to whether or not it will work is something that nobody sitting here today knows the answer to.
It almost seems, though, that to Canadians there is no way you want to see a team in Hamilton…
That is because of what was being said by others. All we said in this process was that if you're buying the Predators, you're buying the Predators. That's it. We're not making any promises beyond that because we don't try to undermine franchises. We owe it to the fans of that team to try and make it work. All we ever said was if you want to buy the franchise, buy the franchise. We didn't say you couldn't buy the franchise. Mr. Balsillie never completed the process. That was his choice, nobody chased him away.
The fact that it was portrayed in a lot of places differently, was a matter that I found extremely frustrating because out track record as a league as being protective of the Canadian franchises is very high and I challenge anybody on the facts to contradict me on that.
[Look at] the Canadian assistance program and the collective bargaining agreement that has made all of our Canadian franchises healthier than they've ever been. The Canadian franchises and Canada as a market for NHL hockey has always been a priority for us.
Is this a make-or-break season for the Predators in terms of staying in Nashville? Is there an expiry date as to whether this is either going to work or it's not going to work in Nashville?
This is where everybody is missing the point. If they average 14,000 in paid attendance, then they have a lease that continues on and as a legal matter, they're not going anywhere. If they don't average 14,000, then the lease will have an option to be terminated and then the team can look at its options to move.
Everyone asks me why I'm trying to save Nashville [but] there's a lease. The lease says the team must play there unless they don't sell 14,000 in attendance.
What about cities such as Chicago and Boston, which are traditional hockey markets, but are struggling in terms of attendance?
I don't worry about [the state] of the Chicago market, I don't worry about the Boston market [because] that's purely performance related. Those are both hockey markets, they're both franchises with great fan bases and traditions, and when they start getting more competitive, the fans will re-fill those buildings, I am certain of that.
To a lot of fans Mark Bell's 15-game suspension, considering how he's turned his life around, seems unfair and appears as though the league is piling on him.
To the contrary. It's a privilege to play in this league. Nobody seems to be focused on the fact that as well as he is doing in his rehabilitation, and he's doing spectacularly, the judicial system is sending him to jail two years after the incident.
When someone gets a DUI, we have a substance abuse program where the player gets evaluated by the counsellors and they decide whether or not you need treatment. In the run-of-the-mill DUI, not that there is any such thing, we don't bother with it.
Mark Bell is in a situation that I will characterize as an aggravated DUI. There was an accident, an injury to another person, and he left the scene, which, in the eyes of the California judicial system, is a felony and requires incarceration.
I was very impressed with Mark when he came to meet with me. I think he's doing well, but I also think that when you do something that rises to the level of you acknowledging [you committed] a felony, there's also a price to be paid at the NHL because playing in the league is a privilege and the fact that it was only 15 games is because I think he is doing so well. I wish him all the best.
Hockey Night in Canada Radio can be heard Monday through Friday from 4-6 p.m. on Sirius Satellite Radio (channel 122).
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