In 16 years as NHL commissioner, Gary Bettman has shaped pro hockey in numerous ways—U.S. expansion, two lockouts, rule changes, the salary cap, the participation of NHL players in the Olympics. The past year, however, counts among the most troubled of his tenure. The league’s tug-of-war with billionaire Jim Balsillie for control of the Phoenix Coyotes put Bettman at odds with many fans, highlighting the combative side of the commissioner’s personality. Earlier this week, he discussed the fallout of Phoenix, fan antipathy toward him, and other hockey-related matters with the Maclean’s editorial board.
Q: It’s been a tumultuous couple of years for you, at least publicly. Do you still enjoy your job?
A: I love the job. I’m passionate about the game, and the people around the game, the way we as a sport connect with our fans. Every job has challenges, things that make the job interesting. I’m not exactly sure, by the way, that I buy into your characterization of tumultuous. That seems to be a little dramatic, perhaps media-centric, as opposed to the reality. But every business has day-to-day challenges, and that’s part of what gets those of us who work going every day.
Q: We want to give you a chance to respond to the broad perception here in Canada that you feel the future of the game lies in the United States—and that the real reason the NHL was in court this summer was to keep Canada from getting more teams.
A: I’ve got to ask you a question about your question. Where does that perception come from? What is it based on? Give me any factual basis and I’ll answer the question.
Q: Well, we could start by pointing you to some of the public opinion polls that emerged during the court process.
A: That’s based on the coverage, not necessarily the reality.
Q: So you’re saying the negative perception of you is the media’s fault?
A: No, I’m not. I’m saying it’s not based on anything. Look, what was going on in Phoenix was an attempt to, not just circumvent, but eviscerate all of our rules and procedures as to the two most important decisions that any sports league has to make: one, who’s going to own franchises and be partners in the league; two, where your franchises are going to be located. That was what Phoenix was about.
Q: Based on feedback from our readers, it’s safe to say most Canadians don’t see it that way. A lot of them saw a struggling franchise in Phoenix, a willing owner in a proven hockey market and the league actually buying the team to stop that prospective Canadian owner from getting control of it.
A: Okay, let’s look at a little history. When Edmonton and Calgary were struggling and there were other places that perceived they could do better because the dollar was stronger, we fought to keep them. Ottawa and Buffalo and Pittsburgh were all struggling and other places felt that they could do better. But we believe we have a covenant with our fans, who make an emotional and financial investment in us. If you run out on them in one place then you’re delivering a message that maybe you don’t take that covenant seriously anywhere. There was a point in the early 1990s when some said there was only going to be one team left in Canada. We never believed that, and everything we did with the Canadian Assistance Program, and with the new collective bargaining agreement, was to ensure that small-market teams—particularly small-market Canadian teams—not only could survive but could be fully competitive. And that’s what you have.
Q: You used the word “covenant” to describe the bargain between the league and its fans. What about the covenant that existed between the league and the fans in Winnipeg, and the fans in Quebec City?
A: We had the same covenant there and we lost in both of those cases. Both teams were struggling. Both needed new arenas and there was no prospect of the arena coming from any source. And the bottom line that differentiates it from all the other cases we’ve talked about, including Phoenix, was that nobody wanted to own a team there anymore. That’s when you reach the end of the line.
Q: But, respectfully, who wants to own the team in Phoenix?
A: Let’s back up. We had a prospective buyer and I was attempting to deliver the offer on May 5 when they put the club into bankruptcy. What then happened was [Coyotes owner Jerry] Moyes, in conjunction with others, did everything they could to make the franchise unsaleable. Through the summer, they lost the personnel, there was no selling of any tickets. They were trying to destroy the franchise so it would have to move.
Q: That seems a lot to lay at the feet of Mr. Moyes. Surely if there was a viable fan base in Phoenix those fans would be demonstrating it now. Instead, as few as 5,800 show up to games.
A: With all due respect, what do you know about the operations of the Phoenix Coyotes? Do you know that they lost most of their staff over the summer? Do you know that most of their employees quit? Do you know that they sold virtually nothing because of all of the uncertainty? Do you know that in the bankruptcy court proceedings season ticket holders were being sent information that says you’re going to lose your season ticket deposits? That the sponsorships weren’t able to be renewed? That they’re doing as well as they are, I think, is pretty good. Time will tell whether or not this franchise was actually destroyed over the summer. We believe that it can be resurrected, and if we’re right then there’ll be a new owner and the team will be there. If we’re wrong then we’ll have to deal with that.
Q: And how is the search for a new owner going?
A: We’ve actually just got it out of bankruptcy court in the last week or so. But we are in discussions with a number of groups.
Q: Prior to this summer, did you see operational problems with the Coyotes?
A: This team wasn’t particularly well run, and in a challenging economic climate, coupled with a variety of other factors, it was less than ideal circumstances. Listen, we have a pretty good track record of fixing these things—Winnipeg and Quebec notwithstanding. And you know, there’s been a lot of speculation about Quebec City getting another arena and wanting a team, and that’s something we’re going to want to look at, at the appropriate time.