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In good hands: Gary Bettman is the right man for the job

Like him or not, NHL commissioner Gary Bettman is the right man for the job

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Gary Bettman isn't going anywhere.

The 60-year-old commissioner of the NHL loves his job, remains energized and is now entering a period of labour peace that could stretch 10 years.

One might argue he's never been more comfortable in his chair high above the canyons of Manhattan.

Some say he should be run out of the game. Well, that's a decision left to his employers, and they seem more than happy with his work.

Bettman signed a five-year contract extension in the spring of 2011 and reportedly earns north of $7 million a year. Not the security or remuneration of a man on the run.

Despite veiled reports of unhappiness among the league's board of governors, in reality there is very little disharmony where Bettman and his future are concerned.

New York's Jimmy Dolan reportedly has no time for Bettman and there has been talk that Tom Stillman in St. Louis is unhappy with the commissioner's recent work, but most have great appreciation for his efforts.

"Very, very much so. There wouldn't be a team in Winnipeg but for Gary and I owe him for that and I always will. I also admire how he handled this very difficult negotiation," said Jets governor Mark Chipman, when asked last week if he still supported Bettman.

The argument has been made that Bettman is a wartime general and not suited for peace. I would argue the exact opposite.

Bettman is stubborn and his haughtiness can be counter-productive during conflict resolution. When he gets in a fight there's no pushing and shoving. He goes right for the throat and it often results in more damage than required. Bettman doesn't have a jab, only a from-the-floor hook.

The notion, however, that Bettman is bad for the game doesn't wash from this vantage point. Maybe we see Bettman through rose-coloured glasses due to his role in bringing the NHL back to Winnipeg, but there is tangible evidence of his positive impact.

Bettman has grown the game dramatically, maybe a little too fast at times, and there's no disputing the NHL has become a more global and modernized league under his care.

Prior to the lockout, league revenues were at an all-time high, players were enjoying their most prosperous era and the game has never been more healthy in Canada. There was lots to like about Gary Bettman's NHL.

There are trouble spots, but that's what this lockout was all about, trying to make the league viable in all 30 markets.

Now that peace has been brokered, Bettman must first repair the damage done by the work stoppage. Player safety remains a thorny issue and there are still franchises such as Phoenix on life support.

Bettman must also find a way to create stability in the relationship between the league and its players.

There are no shortage of challenges for the commissioner and leaving now would be stepping out with the job incomplete.

No, Gary Bettman, as he told the Free Press during a one-on-one interview late last week in his New York office, isn't going anywhere.

 

Free Press: Did you think you were going to lose the season?

Gary Bettman: I was concerned that we might and I'm grateful we didn't.

 

FP: How close did it come to losing the season?

GB: You can't measure those things. I'm not going to do that, and in fact, if this line of questioning is intended to be a retrospective (of the lockout) you're not going to get a whole lot out of me because everybody will have a view and feelings about what happened, me included. But I actually think it's more important that we look forward.

 

FP: What do you like about the deal?

GB: I believe it enables us, on a long-term basis, to have labour peace and a framework where all clubs can be competitive and have an opportunity to make the playoffs and maybe win the Stanley Cup. And knowing it's a 10-year deal, all aspects of our game, particularly our fans, will know we have long-term labour peace.

 

FP: A partnership between the owners and the players seems to be to be an absolute necessity if such conflict is to be avoided going forward. How do you achieve that?

GB: We agree having a strong relationship with the players is vitally important. I think sometimes people forget that it's difficult to do that when the union is in turmoil. For a whole host of reasons that we don't need to get into, this union has had five executive directors in the last eight years. So their issues were more internal than working with us. What has transpired over the last year and a half within the union gives me hope that there is strength and stability in the union. And that's a good thing.

 

FP: There's lots of talk that Don Fehr has revitalized the union.

GB: I think that's what I just said. I think having a strong, solid union is important to the relationship and from the outside looking in it appears Don has done, not just a good job, but a remarkable job of re-establishing the strength of the union. From our standpoint, having a strong union is a good thing upon which we can build a relationship.

 

FP: What do you say about the possibility of the league and players being back at this same spot in eight years?

GB: Talk about speculation. Why would anybody not only say that, but even think about it? We've made an agreement, it's long-term and both sides think its fair. To be speculating about problems 10 years from now, I can't even believe anyone is thinking in those terms.

 

FP: Is this a deal that franchises will either work-or-not-work under? Is this sink or swim for franchises?

GB: This is a deal that gives the game, our franchises and our players stability and an opportunity to grow together.

 

FP: When will you know how much damage has been done by the lockout?

GB: The more damage, the longer it will take to evaluate its overall impact. If there's a lot of damage the question will be how long it lasts. If there's little damage we'll know that right away.

 

FP: It's been written that you are a wartime general and some have argued because of the increase in league revenues seen prior to the lockout that you are in fact a peacetime general. Which are you?

GB: I reject the labels. My priority has always been the health and well-being of this game for everybody associated with this game. Whether or not it's fans or the people who work at the clubs, owners, players, business partners, broadcast partners, my job is to do what is in the long-term best interest of the game for all the constituent groups, and that sometimes means doing unpopular things and making tough decisions.

 

FP: Do you have to be careful and measured about the growth of the league?

GB: The question to me is will we stay true to our core values and strengths, and we never vary from those.

 

FP: There's a big job to be done. Do you want to be around to finish it?

GB: Absolutely. I'm excited about the opportunity to continue to grow the game and being a part of that.

 

FP: There's no timed exit for you?

GB: Nope. I know there is a lot of speculation about that and it is all unfounded.

 

FP: How do you repair the damage?

GB: We reconnect with our fans. The players will come back and give them everything that is great about the game. The players will play hard as they always do and bring back the excitement and the passion and the skill. We have to be good. We have to give them the best of what we do. We have to make them feel the desire to reconnect. We'll do it from market to market and fanbase to fanbase and at the league level. We want to make the fans feel good about coming back.

 

FP: There's a paternalistic theme to being the commissioner of a sports league. Sitting across from the players is an opportunity to get to know them even better than you already do. While you were adversaries, part of you must have been proud of them for the way they stood up to you, and stood up for themselves.

GB: I admire our players on a whole host of levels. I think they are the most gifted athletes in sports. The strength and culture of our game derives in some measure from the fact they are very protective of one another. The team-centric focus is something they do better than the athletes of any other sport. Their ability to come together for something like collective bargaining is not surprising and it's something I admire and respect.

 

FP: A cap system linked to revenue insists that league and players be partners. There was some talk during the process which suggested that isn't possible.

GB: Collective bargaining by its very nature is a difficult and tough process. No matter the industry. There's always a lot of rhetoric and contentiousness that surrounds the process. When the process is over you put that behind you.

 

FP: When will realignment become a reality?

GB: We'll get to it. Soon. We'll be talking to the players' association about it. But frankly, in terms of getting the game back on the ice quickly, it wasn't something we were focused on right now. My hope is we'll have something in place next season.

 

FP: Will NHL players participate in the Olympics?

GB: Same answer. I know it's important to the players and to a number of our fans. There are a lot of issues attendant to Olympic participation that will have to be worked out. But Don and I have had discussions and I think this will be something we'll work on together.

 

FP: Now that this is behind you, if you were applying for the job, would you want to be NHL commissioner, considering the position the league now finds itself in?

GB: It's an interesting question because when I first took the job, we didn't have NHL Network, NHL.com, none of these things existed. Because of how we can now connect with our fans and the level of information and the viewing that is available, we all take it for granted that they've always been there. With all of these new platforms, I think the opportunities on a worldwide basis have never been greater. But first and foremost, we have to make sure the game is healthy on all levels in Canada and the U.S.

 

FP: Do you have a Twitter account?

GB: I did. I don't anymore. I didn't say I don't follow. We monitor it, absolutely. But I don't feel the need to put myself out there more than I already am.

 

FP: Twitter commentary became prominent during the lockout.

GB: It did and I'm not sure it was all good. There was lots of rumour and speculation and things that weren't fact, people assumed were. All social media is great but when it's confused with genuine reporting, it's problematic. And in your business, because of the instantaneous effect, people are sometimes too quick to jump. The fact people can express themselves, I think it's great. Knowing what our fans and our players were thinking as we were going through the process was important to see. But again, when it gets confused with fact, I'm not sure that helps the process.

 

FP: You said "sorry" to the fans the other day. Is that something that comes easy to you?

GB: When it's appropriate. I don't throw it around as a term that you just use cavalierly. I am genuinely sorry that we had to go through this. As commissioner of the league, whether or not I believe I'm doing the right thing and whether or not it's a tough decision, as commissioner of the league I have to take responsibility.

 

FP: What's your message to the fans, the players and the entire hockey world?

GB: We believe in the enduring strength of our game and the greatness of our players and the passion of our fans. We're hoping people can look forward, turn a page with us. We're going to try and be as good as we can be and I hope we can all come together as quickly as possible. Sometimes adversity can bring a family closer.

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

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition January 14, 2013 C4

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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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