Gary Bettman presented the NHL as a haven of sunshine and rainbows, declaring on the eve of the All-Star game the league has never been healthier financially, more competitive, fan-friendlier, or more tech-savvy. And a unicorn appeared on the scene, too.
Bettman and an executive of the NHL Players’ Assn. described their early collective bargaining talks as cordial, an astounding development for a league that has taken combative stances in past negotiations and locked players out in each of the last three labor disputes. “I’m certainly not looking for a fight,” Bettman said, and that’s news if true.
Speaking during a news conference on Friday, Bettman touted advances in player- and puck-tracking technology that will be introduced during the telecast of Saturday’s mini-tournament at SAP Center and will be implemented for regular-season games in 2019-20. The data will track players’ speed, skating distance, and other information that can be used by fans, bettors, coaches and broadcasters.
“Being on the forefront of innovation is good for our game and most especially for our fans,” Bettman said, tracing the path back to the “glow puck” used at the 1996 All Star game. “No, we are not bringing the glowing puck back. However, that was the start of the NHL embracing emerging technologies with the specific goal of bringing our fans a closer view inside the game. … We are committed to ensuring that the NHL is at the forefront of all new technology.”
It’s intriguing, though Kings defenseman Drew Doughty voiced a valid concern. “I’m not down with that stuff. They can just use that against you as a player, especially in a game,” he said. “I play as hard as I can every game but I’m sure they can use it against maybe a fourth-line player. They do it at practice now. They can say you had this many more strides yesterday than you did this day, so they can use it against you.” The league and union have agreed tracking data can’t be used in salary arbitration proceedings.
The tech toys — which will require arenas to upgrade their WiFi systems — will sit idle if play is halted by another lockout. The current collective bargaining agreement contains an opt-out clause that can be invoked by the NHL or by the NHLPA on Sept. 15; if neither side opts out, the agreement would expire on Sept. 15, 2022. Uncertainty over a new agreement led to cancellation of tentative plans for a 2020 World Cup of Hockey, though deputy commissioner Bill Daly said the league and the union “might want to create some kind of international event” to replace the 2021 All-Star game.
The unicorns pranced when Bettman spoke of the tone of labor talks. “We’re in a place in our relationship where we communicate very well. We have constructive and candid dialogue,” Bettman said. “Everybody is going to take a good, hard look in terms of what’s important and what may or may not have to happen. A cold sober look at where we are. … I think at this particular stage in our history and with the opportunities ahead for us, labor peace would be a really good thing. I’ve always thought labor peace would be a really good thing but there were certain things that we had to accomplish.” Those “certain things” include a hard salary cap and an escrow system that is a source of unhappiness among players.
Mathieu Schneider, the former Kings defenseman who’s now a special assistant to NHLPA executive director Don Fehr, said players have made major financial concessions in the past but described current dialogue as “positive,” lacking the rancor and “walls built up” that arose in the past. Could labor peace reign and allow the NHL to proceed without interruption and build on its technology and influx of young talent?
The NHL is, after many rules tweaks, worth watching. As Bettman noted, nine of the 11 players who have scored 60 points this season are 25 or younger. Teams are averaging 6.1 goals per game, the highest in a decade. There have been 345 games in which a team overcame a deficit to win, the most at this point in NHL history, and 96 examples of teams overcoming multi-goal deficits. “In terms of the competitiveness the 31st -place team can beat the first-place team on any single night and I don’t think that happens in a lot of the other national sports,” Doughty said. “I definitely think it’s very competitive. The league’s definitely getting faster, which makes it look better to fans.”
Bettman also announced the dates and matchups for outdoor games next season, including the Kings facing the Colorado Avalanche at the Air Force Academy in Colorado Springs, Colo., on Feb. 15, 2020. Kings owner Philip Anschutz and the team’s parent company, AEG, are based in Denver, factors in the Kings’ selection. The Winter Classic will be played Jan. 1 at the Cotton Bowl between Dallas and Nashville. In addition, a Heritage Classic Game will be staged in Regina, Canada, between Calgary and Winnipeg on Oct. 26.
Daly also said the NHL’s investigation of former Kings defenseman Slava Voynov is “ongoing” after Voynov asked the league to lift his suspension. Voynov served nearly two months in jail in 2015 for corporal injury to a spouse and left the U.S. for his native Russia but wants to return. “We’re continuing to investigate the circumstances surrounding his arrest and ultimate charge and plea,” Daly said, adding he has no timetable for the process.
In the meantime, the NHL is celebrating itself this weekend. For Doughty, it’s a happy interruption to the Kings’ dismal season. “I needed this one. This has been a tough year for all of us. It’s been a great break to get away from hockey and just shut my brain off,” he said.
“None of us are giving up and we still believe that we could possibly do it,” he said of making the playoffs. “That’s the truth. I know everyone is thinking I’m an idiot right now but that’s the truth. We’re going out there playing our butts off every night as hard as we possibly can and we believe we can make it.”
More sunshine, rainbows and unicorns, anyone?