Myers: A Q&A with NHL Commissioner Gary Bettman
Get the 1500 ESPN SportsWire delivered to your inbox daily, and keep up with all the news in Twin Cities Sports
ST. PAUL, Minn. - On his way home to New York from the Heritage Classic (played in Vancouver on Sunday) NHL commissioner Gary Bettman stopped in the State of Hockey on Monday, and got a surprise from Minnesota Wild owner Craig Leipold when the NHL plane landed.
"Let's take a ride," Leipold said to the commish, and he took Bettman to visit Target Field and TCF Bank Stadium - both potential host sites for an outdoor NHL game as soon as next season.
In a few meetings with the media while he was here, Bettman talked plenty about outdoor NHL hockey finally coming to the Twin Cities, after outdoor games have been played seemingly everywhere else, including Los Angeles earlier this season. But he had plenty to say on a wide variety of other topics as well:
On the prospect of openly gay players in the NHL, in the wake of Jason Collins in the NBA and Michael Sam working toward a spot on a NFL roster:
"I think when it comes to diversity and inclusion, our history has been very strong and we've been very supportive and proactive. In fact, we were the first sports league to enter a partnership with You Can Play, so if a player decides he wants to make an announcement, we have all the resources in place that will be accessible to him if he wants that."
On the NHL players injured in Sochi, and what that might do to the chances of seeing NHL players in future Olympics:
"Like so many of the other factors that will have to be weighed, that is one. Where the Olympics are located, how the tournament is done - the number of issues that have to be weighed, and I've said this repeatedly, this is a balancing act. It's not all good, it's not all bad. When you're in a place like Vancouver, the scales tip further in one direction than when you're halfway around the world. But obviously when a number of players get banged up like we saw in Sochi, there are going to be some owners who are going to be a little more cranky on the subject."
On how professional hockey translates to the larger Olympic-size ice sheet:
"What's interesting, and do with this what you will; We had fewer injuries in Vancouver. Is that because of less travel and wear and tear? Or is that maybe because NHL ice is a more suitable place to run hockey tournaments at that level? Most people I think came away from Sochi feeling that our size ice actually is a more entertaining and more compelling game."
On the prospect of expansion, and having an equal number of teams in the Eastern and Western conferences:
"You don't expand just for symmetry. The three things you look at when you expand are market, arena, and most importantly, ownership. The fact is we are unbalanced because that is our geography. When we did the realignment we have everyone in the Eastern Time Zone in the East, and that's better for rivalries, it's better for travel, it includes the fact that every team plays in every building at least once. When teams are on the road and broadcasting back, there are fewer games out of synch, late at night or too early in the afternoon. That's why we did it - it was intended to be fan friendly. If we expand, it's because we decide it's the right time to expand for the reasons you expand - make the league stronger, be in more markets, there's enough talent, all that. We're getting lots of expressions of interest, and we're listening, and that's all we're doing. We haven't decided to engage in a formal expansion process at this point, but we're listening, and there is a lot of interest out there. Some of that is a testament to the state of the game right now.
On which cities are interested in teams, if the NHL expands:
"All we're doing is listening, and we're hearing from Seattle, we're hearing from Las Vegas, we heard from Kansas City, we've heard from Quebec City. So we hear, we listen, but as of right now we haven't yet decided to do anything about it."
On the number of outdoor games, and claims that there are too many of them:
"Our teams, our fans, our players can't get enough of these games. When we were in Chicago, for example, on Saturday night in the snow and there were 63,000 people out in 8-degree weather, snowing like crazy, they couldn't have cared how many games we put on anywhere else. Yes, there were more games on TV in Canada and the U.S. but this is really about what it does in a marketplace to the fan base. In L.A. the reaction was off the charts. Vancouver was a fun party even though the weather didn't cooperate. All the games have been phenomenally well received. In the six (outdoor) games this season we played to 375,000 people and the TV ratings have been great...In terms of interest, 18 of our clubs have been in one, one way or another, already. Those who haven't been in it want to be in it, and those who have been in it want to be in it again."
On the notion that the Wild need to make a playoff run to get the Winter Classic in Minnesota:
"The fan support here is terrific, and one of the reasons we've extended it by doing the Stadium Series is so we could do more (outdoor) games. The Winter Classic may require a team that's performing at a certain level and has a bit of a national following, but we think any of our teams now can participate in an outdoor game if they've got the fan support. And the State of Hockey can certainly do it."
On the state of the NHL in the wake of last season's lockout:
"Every year we've been growing. We haven't had a down year. Every year our attendance has been growing, our revenue has been growing, our TV ratings have been growing. It's about putting the blocks in place. We've had issues over time to deal with, and you have to deal with them in the right way and make sure you have the right foundation. That's how you grow a sport. That's how you make it healthy. This year we now have long-term labor peace. We have long-term terrific national broadcast agreements in both Canada and the U.S. And three franchises that were the subject of way too much speculation were sold in six weeks over the summer to new ownership groups that have made them strong and stable. The game on the ice has never been better, never been faster, never been more skillful or more entertaining. Competitive balance is simply phenomenal. The races are going to be great, and we're going to build on that."