After Five Years in Charge, Bettman Is One of the NHL’s Unfrozen Assets


Since Gary Bettman became the NHL’s first commissioner nearly five years ago, he has dragged the league into the 20th century--just as the rest of the world is preparing for the 21st.

The NHL differs greatly from the enterprise Bettman inherited on Feb. 1, 1993. Four teams have moved, two were added and four are preparing to begin play by 2000; the league endured a lockout that curtailed the 1994-95 season but has enjoyed a marketing boom and unprecedented network TV coverage in the U.S.

Next month, the NHL will make its boldest leap yet when it suspends operations for 17 days to allow players to represent their homelands in the Nagano Winter Olympics. Sunday’s All-Star game here at General Motors Place will enhance what Bettman called the “international flavoring” of the season because it departs from the old East vs. West format to match North American players against players from the rest of the world.


That Bettman has wrought so many changes is a tribute to his business acumen. But growth and change have spawned new problems for a league that still lacks the wide acceptance of baseball, basketball and football.

Scoring is at its lowest level in more than 40 years, the result of rules favoring goaltenders, a thinning of talent through expansion and a schedule compressed to accommodate the Olympic break. In separate incidents, two black players were targets of racial epithets. Players’ salaries are rising rapidly--but so are ticket prices, and attendance is down about 2% compared with the last two box-office record seasons.

There are financial clouds too. Edmonton Oiler owner Peter Pocklington has put his club up for sale, and unless a local group emerges, the Oilers might join the flight of Canadian teams to the United States. Overall, the growth of revenues exceeded the rise in salaries last season, but, said Bettman, “This year they might not. We’ll have to wait and see.”

In other areas, Bettman isn’t waiting. He appointed a committee to study the scoring decline and indicated steps will be taken to “tinker” with the game and open it up next season. Acting swiftly to address what Bettman termed isolated incidents, the NHL took swift action against Chris Simon and Craig Berube of Washington for racially insensitive comments, suspending Simon for three games and Berube for one.

“What we’re trying to do is build the game, make it stronger and make sure that we’re run in a way that maximizes our potential,” Bettman said. “We had some franchise transfers and ownership issues, and I think our franchises have never been stronger. Our footprint has never been stronger.

“We’ve been able to do things to, hopefully, create more interest in the game, and we’re trying to eliminate distractions [such as] work stoppages, franchises in trouble, things of that nature. There seems to be less and less of that as time goes on, and that’s important because we want the attention focused on the ice, where it belongs.”


The Olympic experiment is driven by a desire to increase revenue by exposing the game to potential fans and advertisers. Bettman acknowledged it is neither perfect nor guaranteed to set a precedent.

Unlike the NBA, which doesn’t have to interrupt its season for the Olympics because the basketball tournament is part of the Summer Games, the NHL is in full swing during the Winter Games. Halting play breaks fans’ game-watching habits and increases the risk of injuries to players, but Bettman said the potential gains outweigh the risks.

“People speculated about [injuries] two summers ago before the World Cup and it turned out not to be the case,” he said. “Every time a player steps on the ice for a regular-season game or a playoff game, there’s always a risk of injury. “I don’t think this effort gets judged by whether or not a player gets injured. I think it gets judged by whether or not there’s more interest in the game of hockey. It’s not whether or not this is a watershed event, but whether people thought it was a good thing for the game and it brought a little more interest. It’s another building block.

“We’re accentuating some international assets. But our basic game, and our playoffs leading to the finals, is still what it’s all about. [Whether NHL players participate in the 2002 Games] will be based on an assessment that we as a league and the players’ association will make when it’s all over.”

Bettman said he isn’t concerned with the decline in attendance but next season will start a week to 10 days later--about Oct. 10--to capitalize on the NHL’s pattern of drawing better later in the season. Nor is he especially perturbed by the decline in scoring.

“Some games are more wide-open than others, and the difference is something that fans respond to in different ways,” he said. “Lots of goals doesn’t necessarily mean the game was entertaining, and by the same token, few goals doesn’t mean it wasn’t entertaining. It’s too easy to over-generalize. We know and we’re looking at what can be done about it.”


Although contract disputes involving restricted free agents Paul Kariya, Bill Guerin, Petr Nedved, Sergei Fedorov and Alexander Mogilny kept some of the NHL’s best young players out of uniform for varying periods, Bettman said those disputes don’t represent a trend. Nedved, whose rights belong to Pittsburgh, and Fedorov, whose rights belong to Detroit, remain unsigned.

“If we’re speaking of Group 2, which is the most restrictive, if a player chooses not to elect arbitration he can find himself in a situation where he’s not getting an offer that he’s prepared to play for, and in that case, his only remedy is to sit,” Bettman said. “It’s a matter of choice and that’s what the system allows. A team can choose to pay or not pay, and players are free to accept or not accept [an offer]. That doesn’t mean it’s good or it’s bad. People can’t complain that salaries are too high on one hand and complain players are sitting out, on the other. You can’t have it both ways. These things ultimately work themselves out.

“[Kariya’s missing a third of the season] is a decision Paul Kariya and the Mighty Ducks made at various points. They made a decision last [month] that it was time for him to come back. It was a joint decision, not a decision one side or the other unilaterally made.”

He also contended that the two-year, $14-million contract signed by Kariya and the three-year, $21-million deal Colorado gave Joe Sakic to match an offer from the New York Rangers will not become standard.

“Two or three contracts do not a market make. Teams and players are going to have hard choices to make,” he said. “One result is, we may see a handful of players making a lot of money and a lot of players making not as much as they had hoped because the pool does not have unlimited depth, and so what will happen is, if it gets out of whack, to the point where stars get a disproportionate share, then role players will wind up getting less.

“Over 60% of our revenues come from ticket prices, but that’s not something that’s a bottomless pool, either. There’s been an increase in TV revenues, at the national and the local level. There’s been more marketing and advertising and promotional revenues. There have been more arena revenues. What will happen ultimately is if we ever got to a point where revenues, for whatever reason, stop growing--and this is just a way of illustrating a point, I don’t ever anticipate this happening--salaries would stop growing.”


TV ratings in the U.S. and Canada have decreased this season, but Bettman said he is satisfied with the coverage. ESPN’s NHL contract expires after next season, and Fox has a two-year option on its deal after this season.

Fox’s All-Star telecast will launch a series of 11 consecutive Saturday afternoon broadcasts. Bettman said regular scheduling is crucial to increasing audiences, which in turn should increase revenues.

Bettman also said that while the NHL is happy to help promote women’s hockey and considers its inclusion at Nagano beneficial for the sport, he does not anticipate backing a women’s professional league in the near future, as the NBA is linked with the WNBA.

“The NBA, as a league, and basketball as a sport, are more mature than we are, and if somewhere down the road if the maturation levels were such that it made sense, we would, of course, embrace it,” he said. “What I mean by maturation is we’ve got a lot of growing to do and we’ve got to take care of that first. We need to continue to build. We need to continue to grow.”


Bettman File

* Born: 1952, Queens, N.Y.

* Educated: Graduated from Cornell University School of International and Labor Relations and NYU Law School.

* Portfolio: Former senior vice president and general counsel of the NBA. Hired by NHL December 1992; became first commissioner Feb. 1, 1993. Hired for five years at $1 million a year. Contract later extended through 2003.


* On the job: He has presided over a period of modernization. He abolished the old conference and division names in favor of geographic names and oversaw the shift of teams from Canada toward U.S. Sunbelt cities.

A strike by game officials and a lengthy lockout that cut the 1994-95 season to 48 games. But an agreement that put NHL players in the Olympics also extended the collective bargaining agreement through Sept. 15, 2004.


* What: NHL All-Star Game

* When: Sunday, 1 p.m.

* Where: Vancouver

* TV: Channel 11