Gary Bettman is no stranger to trouble.
In his 17 years as NHL commissioner, he has presided over two work stoppages, major expansion to the southern U.S. and the implementation of a salary cap.
Most recently, Bettman has been dealing with the bankruptcy and on-again, off-again sale of the Phoenix Coyotes. Will they stay in Glendale, Ariz., or return to their original home in Winnipeg?
That question and others were on Free Press hockey writer Tim Campbell's mind when he spoke to Bettman during an exclusive interview Thursday afternoon:
Free Press: "Are you aware of how many Gary Bettman sightings there have been in Winnipeg in the last two or three months?
Gary Bettman: It's funny you should ask. The reports come streaming in on a regular basis, people asking me what I ordered for dinner at a particular restaurant or where I was staying. I haven't been in Winnipeg in the last year or even longer and for example, I haven't spoken to Mayor Katz ever. But I get reports that I'm in town and meeting with the mayor and neither of those reports are accurate.
FP: Interest is high here in current NHL events. Emotions are starting to run again. Is it your impression about Winnipeg there are any carts before the horse in this matter of the Coyotes?
Gary Bettman: It's not a question of carts before the horse. What I'm more concerned about is people getting their expectations up when they shouldn't be. I was very uncomfortable and unhappy over the last few years when people in southern Ontario were misled about what was going on. Some of that comes from people actually trying to do the misleading and some of it comes from media reports, and that's not to knock the media because they're attempting to do their job. But sometimes all of this gets further along than it has any right to do. And that makes me extremely uncomfortable because we value and respect our fans everywhere and we never want them to be misled.
FP: Can you speak to any practical deadline you may have with interested parties from Winnipeg if indeed NHL hockey is any kind of possibility here next season?
Gary Bettman: I'm well aware of the great interest there is in Winnipeg in having a team again. And it's something I sympathize with and under the right circumstances would be supportive of. But I'm not going to weigh in and start a clock running because again, that would get people's anticipation going and I don't want to do that. If at some point in time we have something concrete and constructive to offer the situation, I will announce it. But up until we make any formal announcement, I would strongly encourage our fans in Winnipeg to ignore every rumour, every opinion and every suggestion that something's going to happen. When something's going to happen, we'll be the first tell you if something's going to happen.
FP: There is lots of opinion and commentary that is doubtful Winnipeg could support an NHL franchise, based on size of the community or the building. Do you have an opinion on that?
Gary Bettman: "Yes, I do. But there's no point in sharing that right now. There are lots of people who question -- inaccurately -- the viability of hockey in certain markets and places both in Canada and in the United States. Again, that goes to opinion and speculation and the like, which is largely uninformed."
FP: A lot of people ask us why the NHL wouldn't want an owner such as David Thomson. Is there an answer for that?
Gary Bettman: Well, first of all, if I answer the question the wrong way, it would confirm whether or not he's actually interested. And nobody has confirmed or denied it; it's just out there. And two, that's again another piece of unsubstantiated speculation. You're asking all of the right questions, but to speculate as to who might be an owner and then our reaction to the owner who might be an owner is ridiculous. If, at the appropriate time, there is something concrete that is going on with a particular city and a particular owner or ownership group, we'll make clear our view on it. Again, people putting thoughts in our heads or words in our mouths really is so unfair to the most important people, namely our fans in Manitoba.
FP: Many people wonder if you're using True North as leverage or bait? Do you understand why they think that?
Gary Bettman: First of all, we haven't done anything. So everything that you're suggesting is going on comes from people who are suggesting that we're doing something that we may or may not be doing. Again, that whole line of thought relates to 'are we coming or are we not coming?' and if we're not coming, we're saving a market that doesn't deserve to be saved or if we are coming or suggesting we might be coming, that's leverage. It's all part of this rampant speculation that has no foundation.
FP: Have you ever been inside MTS Centre?
Gary Bettman: No... not on any of those numerous reported visits to the city either (laughter).
FP: What is the NHL's evaluation of Mark Chipman and True North at this point?
Gary Bettman: We're aware of their interest and aware of their operations. Mark, I know, is an owner who's extremely well-respected by the American Hockey League and he's somebody I've had a relationship with over the years.
FP: On Tuesday night, Mr. Daly sounded very confident about a stay-in-Arizona solution on the floor of Glendale City Council. Can you say why?
Gary Bettman: I believe he and we are hopeful that as the process continues that we will be in a position to do the things that are necessary to keep the Coyotes in Arizona. And people shouldn't confuse our desire to keep the team where it is with anything else that's going on anywhere else.
FP: Do you have any regrets today that the proposed sale of the Coyotes of a year ago, prior to the bankruptcy, didn't go through?
Gary Bettman: The fact of the matter is that the club never should have been put into bankruptcy. It was simply a scheme by a couple of people to try to circumvent league rules. It was all unnecessary and it was an attempt to damage the franchise in Arizona and I believe it did damage the franchise in Arizona and has made the task we've had for the last year much more difficult. So if you're asking me, 'Do I regret the fact we couldn't effectuate the sale at the time?' it would have avoided a difficult and needless year of dealing with a variety of problems if the sale we had initially contemplated had been able to go through.
FP: Can you explain the importance of the $25-million commitment the Glendale city council made on Tuesday for the average fan?
Gary Bettman: The request for the City of Glendale to be contingently assuring us that our losses would be covered for next year has to do with the fact that the things the city needs to do with a prospective purchaser to enable the franchise to stay in Glendale and to enable a new purchaser to be able to buy the club will take probably 60, 90 days to accomplish. By that point, we wouldn't be at a point where we'd be able to move for next season. Our hope and expectation is that no money ever needs to be paid. It's only in the event that we wait for the city to try to do all those things and to close a deal if it all blows up and it's unsuccessful.
FP: They have already been in court about this; what level of concern do you have about the Goldwater Institute's involvement or interest in the Coyotes matter?
Gary Bettman: I'm not an expert on Arizona law so I'm not knowledgeable enough to know what impact the Goldwater Institute could have. I assume our lawyers will deal with that as appropriate.
FP: Three years ago in this forum with us, you were quite forceful in saying you would not engage in false promises or unrealistic expectations. Same message for the fans of Winnipeg, to stay passionate, but we don't want to lead you on?
Gary Bettman: If there is an opportunity for us to return to Winnipeg, we will be the ones who make that announcement and anything you hear prior to that announcement is something we hope you take not just with a grain of salt but with the entire salt shaker.