MINNEAPOLIS -- Now, more than three weeks after the agreement was announced to move the Atlanta Thrashers to Winnipeg, NHL commissioner Gary Bettman agreed to sit down with Free Press hockey writer Tim Campbell on Friday to review that story and several other issues.
Free Press: We're three weeks-plus since the announcement and the story continues to be powerful coast to coast in Canada. Anything about that surprise you?
Gary Bettman: It was always clear to me there was passion for the game and a tremendous sense of loss. Sometimes when there's a sense of loss, it dissipates with time, but that was never the case here. What's interesting about it is that there's so much revisionist history about what happened 15 years ago. Which is OK, because in the final analysis, we're back and we're thrilled to be back. If anybody thinks that the circumstances of our coming back anywhere resembled the circumstances of the leaving, they don't understand what happened in either case.
FP: The public's reaction to you in many cases, does that bother you in any personal way?
GB: It's not even criticism. It's become a routine. The fact is, there is a picture that has been painted in some places that doesn't reflect the reality. I understand that. Most importantly, to the extent it demonstrates the passion by our fans about our game, I am completely comfortable with that.
FP: There are Canadians who wonder if you actually like the game and whether you just see your job as the business manager of hockey.
GB: It's a ridiculous question. Anybody who either thinks that or questions it doesn't know me at all. They're relying too much on silly reports. You can't do what I do, can't be as committed, spend the amount of time doing what I do without loving it. This is an all-consuming job. If you don't know what you're doing, you can't allow yourself to be so consumed. Anybody who knows me knows I happen to love what I do. I love my life and love that I get an opportunity to spend my waking hours doing what I do.
FP: Can you recollect or share anything with us about the 2007 meeting of yourself and the executive committee with Mark Chipman and True North? Did you and the committee learn something then that changed the perception of Winnipeg?
GB: I don't think so. We had been getting expressions of interest from a number of places that wanted franchises. I thought it had reached a point that even if we weren't going to do anything about it, I wanted the executive committee to at least understand what the expressions of interest were, where they were coming from and who was expressing them. Mark and I had communications over the years. For me there was no epiphany, no new news. Mark was continuing through the process of familiarizing himself with what was involved in obtaining an NHL franchise, even if at that point there was no realistic expectation it was going to happen any time soon.
I think it gave the committee some foundation to what they had been hearing. They got to see Mark, got to hear from Mark and got to hear him tell the Winnipeg story, a story which had been told over the prior few years since the MTS Centre was built. Since Mark was expressing an interest, albeit quietly behind the scenes, about bringing the NHL back, it was not groundbreaking, just another step in what became an orderly process.
FP: If there's an easy answer... how did Winnipeg get to the top of your list?
GB: There's no easy answer to a complicated question, but it was a combination of persistence, professionalism, preparedness and the right circumstances. The circumstances were twofold. One, you have owners who were NHL-calibre who wanted to do it and two, you had a new arena. Those two things were markedly absent 15 years ago. The third factor was that this was an opportunity with the change in circumstance that if a team became available, to go back to a place where we believe NHL hockey would work again.
FP: Was that you-driven or board-driven?
GB: Ultimately, it's board-driven.
FP: Is the arena the turning point in this story?
GB: I think it's three things. It's really the same question. It's the arena, the ownership and the market's stronger, too. Winnipeg has withstood the recession perhaps better than any major city in Canada. And so the population base, the economic base, they are stronger than they were when the Jets left.
FP: When Mr. Daly and some of your people were in Winnipeg a short time ago, he shared a story with us about you having some friendly wager with Mark about the ticket campaign. We're wondering why you were more bullish on Winnipeg than he was (and won the bet).
GB: I think that was a question that he had a lot going on and was placing a lot at risk both personally and professionally. On some level, as convinced as he was that this was the right thing to do, he was just a little nervous about everything going right. I kept telling him this, I never had any doubt. I thought this was going to work. I was certain that based on everything that was presenting itself, this would be as smooth and as successful a transfer as we could have envisioned.
FP: Is there a point in this story where your personal view of Winnipeg changed?
GB: No. Here's the point people miss. This is again why maybe perceptions are just so inaccurate. There was a drive by some in the media to constantly undermine a franchise where it was because we'd be better off somewhere else. That's not the standard we've ever used. We didn't leave Winnipeg because we thought Phoenix would be better. We left Winnipeg because nobody wanted to own the team anymore. Once that happens, then you say, "Where should we go?" What happened in Atlanta was the same thing. We're thrilled to be in Winnipeg. But we're not in Winnipeg because it's better than Atlanta. We left Atlanta because the story was over in Atlanta. That's not how this story of relocation is generally covered. It's not as good a story if you're looking for heroes and villains.
FP: Do you feel like the league now has some momentum, having recently brought in Jeff Vinik (Tampa Bay), Terry Pegula (Buffalo) and True North into the ownership group?
GB: The league has great strength right now in terms of owners who are being attracted, in terms of media partners and arrangements, having entered into our biggest media deal ever, in terms of attendance, in terms of our attendance. We, as a league, are going to gross $3 billion this year, up from $2.1 billion coming out of the work stoppage. The game on the ice is perhaps the most entertaining, the most exciting and most competitive it's ever been. The vital signs are all good. That maybe goes back to your question about booing. Anybody who's a fan of the game, who really loves the game, really follows it, understands the game is maybe as strong as it's ever been. And I believe with the ownership group that we have in Winnipeg and with the building and with support of the community and with this franchise, we will yet continue to see our strength grow.