He’s been deflecting, sidestepping and trying to tamp down expectations for weeks, months and even years but NHL commissioner Gary Bettman didn’t hold back today at the MTS Centre.
Making his first visit to Winnipeg in 15 years, Bettman was his conversant self at the announcement that True North Sports and Entertainment has a conditional purchase agreement for the NHL’s Atlanta Thrashers.
"I think so much of the coverage and speculation in hindsight turned out to be so wrong, I’m hoping people take a deep breath before that go that route again," Bettman said about the frenzy that led up to today’s announcement.
True North’s deal with the Atlanta Spirit Group was not done until very early this morning but once it was done, Bettman and several league executives including deputy commissioner Bill Daly hopped on a jet and flew to Winnipeg.
Bettman confirmed today the new Winnipeg NHL franchise will stay in the Southeast Division for 2011-12, then move to the Western Conference for the following year.
He would not publicly express a preference for a name for the new team here.
"I think that’s really a decision Mark Chipman and David Thomson and their organization have to make," Bettman said. "I’ve heard both sides of the argument.
"If in fact they want to use the Jets name, we will make it available to them.
"At a price?" Bettman was asked.
"No. What a cynical question," he said.
Bettman had voluminous words of praise for both Chipman and Thomson, the partners in True North.
Thomson’s surprise presence at the press conference and answer to a question about his support for the business, franchise and new team particularly impressed the commissioner.
"His answer at the press conference as to why he was investing in this community and this franchise may have been one of the most articulate statements as to why somebody owns a franchise that I’ve ever heard," Bettman said.
On Chipman, Bettman added: "There was a constant, open dialogue and open line of communication. Mark spent a good deal of time doing his homework, retaining consultants — he gave a shout-out to Terry Morris and Allen and Company — who worked with him. I know Mark was in contact with a number of other teams to understand exactly what their business operations were like.
"He, in just a very constructive, professional, quiet way, kept doing the things that were necessary to ultimately get to this point. He understood that this wasn’t a process that he could control the timing of and that this wasn’t a process that could be pushed faster than it could go on its own.
"He exhibited extraordinary patience."
And later, on Chipman’s methodology, Bettman said: "The one thing that I think Mark Chipman demonstrated in this process is quiet, behind-the-scenes patience tends to work better than the alternative."
Bettman had positive remarks about the arena itself and, as numerous reports in the past have indicated, has no trouble with its size of just more than 15,000 seats.
"I do believe it’s viable but you have to fill it," Bettman said. "This won’t work long-term if people aren’t coming to the games. If everybody is a fraction as passionate as what they’ve told us over the last 15 years, filling this building will not only be easy, it’ll make people wish it was even bigger."
Bigger, however, isn’t necessarily better, Bettman said.
"If you’re looking at the economics, the lowest-priced ticket is $39 and let’s assume there were 2,000 seats, you’re talking about ... $3 million," he explained. "That in and of itself isn’t going to make a difference to this franchise being successful as long as the building’s full. If the building’s not full, this doesn’t work but we have every expectation that it will be full.
"I think this building can be a great home to an NHL team. I think it’s going to be loud and I think people are going to enjoy the experience here because of the intimacy."
He promised to return for opening night in the fall.
Bettman also said there is no basis to the belief that he or the NHL is anti-Winnipeg or anti-Canada.
"That perception is based on nothing," he said. "Whoever suggested it was making it up.
"Anybody who thinks the league was anti-Canadian or thinks we never understood from Day 1 that Canada is the heart and soul of this game and that this game is the heart and soul of Canada doesn’t understand what we understand."
Bettman said he has profound disappointment for Atlanta.
"It’s very disappointing," he said. "I feel most badly for the fans there. But when you reach a place, as we did here in 1996, where nobody wants to own the team there anymore, there isn’t much you can do."