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Exclusive: NHL commissioner discusses lockout issues

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Gary Bettman oversees the NHL in good times and bad. He makes forceful decisions and stands behind them, no matter public perception. As such he can be a lightning rod for criticism, especially in times like these.

For example, this recent assessment courtesy of Red Wings defenceman Ian White: "I gotta be honest, I personally think (Bettman's) an idiot. Since he's come in, I think he's done nothing but damage the game."

On the other hand, there are more player jobs paying more money than ever before, seven teams in Canada and a new U.S. national broadcast agreement. In many ways, the NHL has never had it so good. Except, of course, for the league's inability to play games every seven years or so.

Bettman cannot keep everyone happy. Ownership wants it one way, the players another. Bettman must try to find the balance that is best for the game. He's still searching.

Bettman is not a grip-and-grin boss such as John Ziegler, and he's certainly not of the Gil Stein puppet ilk. Bettman is a target. Especially as a commissioner who refuses to hide behind ownership but instead puts himself front and centre for all to praise or criticize as they see fit.

Bettman has a vision and he drives it. He's polarizing. One can agree or disagree with his approach, but there's no questioning his zeal.

The double-edged sword of Bettman's leadership is that while he has overseen unprecedented revenue growth for the league and record paydays for its players, he has also had to contend with labour strife.

During Bettman's reign, the NHL has seen its annual revenue grow to top the $3-billion mark, but for the second time in eight years, the league is in the midst of a lockout. After losing the entire 2004-05 season, the threat of another missed campaign is becoming very real.

Bettman has been under heavy fire from the league's players, with many questioning his leadership. But he is standing firm.

Bettman spoke with the Free Press for just over 30 minutes Sunday morning.

Here's the entire telephone interview.

 

FREE PRESS: At this moment, where do things stand and what is the gulf between the two sides preventing a deal?

 

GARY BETTMAN: There seems to be a fundamental disagreement on many of the core issues. We have proposed a 50-50 split of HRR (hockey-related revenue) which has not been agreed to. We have raised issues with respect to how the system works and the adjustments we think need to be made, and there doesn't seem to be agreement or even a willingness to agree on them.

 

FP: The players say, "We gave to get to 50-50. Why should we give any more? There's nothing in this deal for us." What do you say to that?

 

GB: Twofold. One, we want to make sure the system works well and continues to work well. There are certain trends and issues that have arisen that we believe need to be adjusted in order for us to have the competitive balance that we want and need to enable us to continue to grow the game. What's in this deal for the players? Give or take $14 billion over the next seven years.

 

FP: The league has 30 teams. Not all are stable and the league remains in flux. There are franchises that don't work. The players say revenue sharing should fix those problems. But meaningful revenue sharing historically comes from league-wide revenue such as national TV rights, and there's not enough in that pot right now to fix all the league's woes. It's hard to get markets like Toronto, or even Winnipeg for that matter, to subsidize teams like Phoenix or Miami that don't generate substantial gate revenue. Is this the crux of why there is a lockout?

 

GB: Not completely. It's not wholly inaccurate, but it's more inaccurate than not. The fact is, we have revenue-shared, we do revenue-share and we've offered to increase revenue sharing by more than a third. Our revenue sharing as a percentage of HRR is at least comparable, if not more, than either baseball or basketball. This notion that we're not prepared to revenue-share in a meaningful way is not true. Perhaps more importantly, revenue sharing alone does not fix what we believe needs to be corrected. We believe all 30 franchises are viable and can be successful. We think all 30 franchises are important. Each franchise counts for lots of player jobs and other jobs and is important to its community. Most important, this notion that clubs are not willing to help other clubs is simply not true. We are simply at a percentage under our old deal where our player costs, for a whole host of reasons, are just too high. If you look at the experience in the two other sports where revenue is shared with the players, namely football and basketball, the players in those sports acknowledged exactly what we've been saying.

 

FP: Revenue is growing, but there's an imbalance from franchise to franchise. If the weaker franchises can't compete from a revenue standpoint, why not contract?

 

GB: We believe all of our franchises are important and can be viable and can be successful. And frankly, if we're going to continue to grow the game and grow what you refer to as national revenues, you need to have a truly national footprint, not just in Canada but in the United States.

 

FP: When are you going to cancel the season?

 

GB: That's not something we're focused on. We very much want to make a deal. On Oct. 16th we made an offer to save an 82-game season which the union summarily rejected. But we're going to stay at this because nobody wants to be in that position. So we're not focusing on that sort of deadline right now.

 

FP: If you have to cancel the season, what would you do to the system?

 

GB: Any answer I give you to that question would be terribly misportrayed and misconstrued.

 

FP: There was a report out of Philadelphia on Saturday that says you are losing the support of the owners.

 

GB: It was a fabrication. Ed Snider is the one who told me about the article when he found out about it and he was terribly upset. He's in Europe and it was his idea to put out a statement. Anyone who doubts the resolve of ownership is either uninformed or (being) intentionally misleading.

 

FP: Was the aggressive nature of your first offer to the players a mistake?

 

GB: I think the view some have of our first offer is fairly naive as it relates to collective bargaining. A sophisticated negotiator would have looked at it and said, 'Obviously they want a 50-50 split.' If we're at 57 and they propose 43, they must be telegraphing where they want to end. If your intention was to use it in an inflammatory way, you could do that. If your intention was to make a deal, you could pretty much chart out what the course should be.

 

FP: Don Fehr is a union leader. A negotiation is his raison d'�tre. It's been suggested a protracted lockout keeps him in the spotlight and he enjoys that. Do you see it that way?

 

GB: I will not comment on the union leadership or union tactics. I'll leave it to others.

 

FP: Do you enjoy this? What's happening right now?

 

GB: No. It's horrific for the simple reason that we as a business are in business to put on our game and engage with our fans and to grow our game. This entire process is absolutely inconsistent with that. Having said that, any sports league needs a system that works and makes the game and the business of the game healthy.

 

FP: What damage has been done to the game?

 

GB: We won't know that until it's over. Obviously what we're going through is damaging. We can estimate the dollars and cents of what's been cancelled and what we're hearing from business partners and what it's doing to their businesses. But we won't know the long-term and short-term effects until this is over. But it's not good.

 

FP: You were quoted as saying the business bounced back after the last lockout because NHL fans were the best in the world. But this is the second lockout in under a decade. What will you do for your fans and your sponsors when you do get back on the ice?

 

GB: We're going to have to make it right. That's something that is important and vital and will have to be judged over time. The manner in which we do it and the way it ultimately plays out isn't something I can comfortably discuss until this is over.

 

FP: Because you ultimately believe you have the best fans in the world and they'll be back no matter what, is that a crutch that allows you to have frequent work stoppages?

 

GB: It has nothing to do with that. It has everything to do with we have to have the right deal going forward. In the absence of an agreement, you have to have a work stoppage. The union has shown an unwillingness to negotiate. So certainly, if they're not negotiating in a meaningful way now, what would they be doing if we were playing under the old system? The entire strategy appeared to be an attempt to maintain what the union had under the expired CBA, which is something they're not entitled to.

 

FP: Winnipeg isn't an artificial market. They pay NHL prices for NHL hockey. But they had unexpectedly robust revenue last year, they paid bottom third of the league in salary and they made money. But had they spent to the cap, they would have lost money. Under the old agreement, being competitive was going to be a challenge for Winnipeg. Can you address that?

 

GB: We believe the fundamentals of the system we created eight years ago are sound and have given us great competitive balance. But the system needs to be adjusted. It needs to take into account the realities of what's taken place over the past seven seasons. And I mean that on a macro-economic basis. We're committed to having a system that works for our clubs and our league and ultimately our players and our fans.

 

FP: Last week stories broke to the effect that you told Don Fehr it was time to take a two-week break from negotiations. Now you're set to talk on Monday night. What happened to change things?

 

GB: What happened is that conversation was clearly misportrayed and mischaracterized. Don called me on Tuesday to have a conversation. It wasn't a negotiation. It was nothing more than a simple conversation. In the course of that conversation he said he didn't know what to do or how to proceed. I said maybe we should take a little downtime, a couple of weeks, especially since we had just five sessions in six days and nothing was produced. In light of that fact he didn't know how to proceed, I said that as a suggestion. He gave it a long pause and then said, 'I don't think so.' I said OK. So this notion that we proposed a moratorium is nothing more than union rhetoric. We were always willing to go back to the table. The lines of communication are open. They know they have our best offer, which is a 50-50 sharing and the other issues that we've proposed to them. They proposed 17 issues last week and we agreed to 13 of them. We know where the negotiations led to, they know they have our best offer. We've always said if they have something to discuss, we're always available to meet.

 

FP: Is there room for give and take on the contracting rights issues?

 

GB: I'm not going to get into the specifics of negotiations other than to say there are contracting issues that need to be addressed and we've said we would be happy to discuss how those issues are addressed.

 

FP: How much longer do you want to be commissioner of the NHL?

 

GB: That's not something I focus on. I generally love my job on a day to day basis and I love the game. Nobody likes going through a situation like we're going through. It's not what we do and not what we want to do. We exist as a league and as a game to be playing.

 

FP: Are you worried you might lose another season?

 

GB: The thought of that is something I don't even want to consider because we obviously don't want to be in that situation. But we have to have the right agreement and the system has to work well. Otherwise, the long-term consequences of not having the right agreement, are more difficult to deal with than short term consequences.

 

FP: A player called you an idiot the other day. Do you take these bullets gladly because you work for the owners and that's just part of the job? How do you feel about the players?

 

GB: I work for the owners but I work for the game. What I do transcends what I do for the owners. I do work for the game and I try to do the best I can for the game. You'll find in the course of labour disputes, there's always a lot of rhetoric. Most of it is just noise. Most of it is misinformed. There's propaganda. It's just a fact of life that you live with. By the way, I love the players. Nobody should think for a moment that I don't. If I didn't I wouldn't do this job. I couldn't do this job. I believe in the players. I don't believe in what's going on right now. It's part of the business of the game. The least attractive part of the game.

 

FP: Do you understand where the players are coming from?

 

GB: The fact of the matter is everybody ultimately does what is best and what they think is right. Everybody has to make their own judgments. It's very easy to critique what the union is doing or what we're doing. I assure myself on a daily basis that whatever the union is doing they think (it) is the right thing. I hope the fans can respect that what we're doing, we believe, is ultimately the best thing for the game long term.

gary.lawless@freepress.mb.ca Twitter: @garylawless

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition November 19, 2012 C3

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About Gary Lawless

Gary Lawless is the Free Press sports columnist and co-host of the Hustler and Lawless show on TSN 1290 Winnipeg and www.winnipegfreepress.com
Lawless began covering sports as a rookie reporter at The Chronicle-Journal in Thunder Bay after graduating from journalism school at Durham College in Ontario.
After a Grey Cup winning stint with the Toronto Argonauts in the communications department, Lawless returned to Thunder Bay as sports editor.
In 1999 he joined the Free Press and after working on the night sports desk moved back into the field where he covered pro hockey, baseball and football beats prior to being named columnist.

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