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Gary Bettman's meeting with NHL players goes to overtime

LAS VEGAS - After waiting 16 years to make an appearance at the NHLPA's player meetings, Gary Bettman needed a little extra time to get his point across.

The NHL commissioner spoke for almost two hours on Saturday morning - more than double the time he was originally allotted. He began with an address to the roughly 110 players in attendance and faced questions on a range of topics.

Everyone seemed satisfied after Bettman's first-ever visit to these meetings.

"It was a big move on his part to come in here," said Detroit Red Wings defenceman Chris Chelios, often a critic of the commissioner. "It was a respectful meeting. We weren't going to do anything that was unprofessional. It took a lot for him to go out of his way and address the players.

"I just wish we had 700 guys in here to listen to him."

The commissioner spoke about the business of the sport and fielded questions from guys like Chelios, Robyn Regehr, Georges Laraques, Manny Malhotra and Kevin Weekes.

There was a time during Bettman's reign when a meeting like this would never have happened. However, NHLPA executive director Paul Kelly thinks it's important to keep an open dialogue with the league.

"In our business we have to strike the balance between working together in a professional, constructive manner and digging in to represent our respective sides," said Kelly. "My view is that we should be talking to each other, we should be listening to each other. ...

"I thought it was important for Gary to come to the players meetings to share with the players whatever he wished to share with them and also to respond to tough questions."

An interesting issue for the sides to work out moving forward is the league's policy on performance-enhancing drugs. Bettman is in favour of adopting the World Anti-Doping Agency's long list of banned substances and wants to see testing conducted all year.

The players discussed the issue on Saturday and seem to be split on what to do.

While none of them think there is a problem in the sport, there are a lot of things to consider before adopting a new policy.

"In the drug testing business, there are false positive (tests)," said Kelly. "We don't want guy's reputations or careers to be ruined by those instances. There has to be a mechanism to corroborate what appears to be a positive test.

"And then there has to be a system in place to make sure that player's rights are protected, that he's not going to be exposed to some type of criminal prosecution."

Another issue that came up with Bettman is the league's U.S. television contracts. Many players would prefer the league to strike a deal with ESPN, but the commissioner remains committed to Versus and NBC.

Regehr chuckled while describing the spin Bettman put on that issue while meeting the players.

"I think it was a really good commercial by him for Versus and NBC," said Regehr.

One thing that wasn't officially decided here was whether the players will enact the five-per-cent inflator on the salary cap - a decision that will affect next year's number by US$2 million.

Secret ballots were cast by the player representatives in attendance but there wasn't enough of them to register a binding result. Missing players have until Tuesday to register their vote.

This day was more about Bettman.

Among the issues he touched on were fighting, the problems in Phoenix, the current economy and NHL participation in the Olympics. He was grateful to have the opportunity.

"There may not have been a whole lot of new information, but it was an opportunity for players to get a sense of how we look at things," said Bettman.

He seemed to make a fairly good impression.

"A lot of criticism flies towards Gary, but you can't knock him for being a bad businessman," said Buffalo Sabres goalie Ryan Miller. "He's a very strong businessman, he's a smart man.

"It's good for guys to sit there and listen to his opinions and to learn. Of course, he has the interests of the NHL in mind and we have to have our best interests at heart.

"He's trying to get the best deal for his owners and we're trying to get the best deal for us. But guys being able to hear his opinion first-hand and being able to ask him some questions was definitely beneficial."

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