NHL Commissioner Gary Bettman. (CPimages/AP/Paul Sakuma)
Question: Can you compare your mood on the eve of the NHL season to a year ago coming out of the lockout?
Bettman: It's an interesting question because last year at this time we were extremely excited and energized to be coming back. And in that regard, the mood as well this year is excitement and energy because we know we had a terrific season and we're looking to build upon it. Last year, because of what we had to do in such a brief period of time, it was a frenetic pace where everybody here at the league and at the Players' Association and at all the clubs were working very hard but were able to do it in a more organized and business-like basis this year. If I had to point to one difference between this year and last year, is this year is about looking forward, not focusing on how we would come back. It's the difference between re-launching and coming back and having the opportunity to look to the future. And we've been able to, as a result of the luxury of time for planning, do a better job on scheduling, on broadcasting, on reviewing and analysing the rules. This was an opportunity for us in a very careful and deliberate way to improve upon where we were.
Question: Attendance was up last year. What are your expectations this season?
Bettman: I expect attendance to be as strong as it was, if not stronger. The fact is that our fans are the greatest, they stood by this game. They came back in record numbers and we are grateful. It shows the strength of the game and how passionate and connected our fans are. Lots of teams had an opportunity over the last year and a half to add exciting players, the competitive balance is the best it's ever been. And we continue to see strength in our numbers.
Question: What are your expectations for league revenues this year, in other words, where do you think the salary cap is headed?
Bettman: We will continue to grow. I expect the cap to continue to go up. Will it jump as dramatically a year from now as it did this year? The answer is no. I think that the burst that we were able to show, the resiliency that we were able to demonstrate in bringing the business back, is something that you cannot replicate every year. However I am extremely bullish in our future prospects. I believe in the strength of the game and the business of the game.
Question: The league's hockey operations department, in conjunction with the competition committee, decided to simply tweak the rules this off-season and not having another full-blown drastic overhaul like last year. Why?
Bettman: I think it was the right call for two reasons. One, when you make a lot of changes, you really have to let them take, set in. You don't want to constantly be mixing it up. It's not fair to the players, the coaches, the officials and the fans - most importantly. And secondly, there was no reason to do anything else because virtually everyone believes what we did last year worked extremely well.
Question: U.S. TV ratings were down last year. What are your expectations this season?
Bettman: First of all, I believe you'll see an increase in our ratings this year. With people getting used to finding us in new places, the novelty of that will be behind us. Secondly, Versus (formerly OLN) will have a better schedule because last year's schedule was a cherry-pick schedule for them because we had done our league schedule before we made our deal with them. And that's not the way a broadcaster traditionally gets its schedule. They will have an exclusive night where they'll have the only game in the United States and we think that will enhance the ratings. The other thing to keep in mind is that I think two-thirds of our clubs, locally, saw either a levelling or up-pick in their ratings. And third, when you look at the trends in broadcasting, while a lot of sports were up last year as opposed to the prior year, most were down compared to two years ago, which is the comparison that we had to use for our ratings because we had the year off. So when you look at all the factors and you look at what was going on in sports television in general, we were pretty consistent with what was going on overall.
Question: The L.A. Times won't cover hockey games on the road this season and more U.S. dailies are considering following suit. How concerned are you about this?
Bettman: This would have been a real concern five or 10 years ago. But what we're witnessing is a cutback in coverage, not just in hockey, not just in sports, but across the board in newspapers because the newspaper industry because of the ability of people to get their news from other places - including the Internet. The columnists, the special features, will continue to be important and the L.A. Times has promised to continue to treating us in that way and they have. Game stories become less relevant in newspapers because reading these stories the next morning isn't as important as it used to be when you can get your game updates and game stories as the game is progressing and as soon as the game is over. What we're seeing is a trend that transcends hockey. And I think for a number of papers, when they've been cutting back, we - because of the work stoppage - became a convenient excuse to justify the cutbacks that are happening across the board.
Question: Your reaction to Rick DiPietro's 15-year contract with the New York Islanders?
Bettman: My reaction is two-fold. One, and I'm on record saying this long before this contract, namely I think under the type of system we have, it's generally more prudent to enter into shorter-term contracts than longer-term contracts. And when I say more prudent, both for the teams and the players. Because under our collective bargaining agreement, there is no ability to renegotiate a contract. And so, it's conceivable that during the term of a long-term contract either the player or the club may decide that this turned out not to be such a great thing. With respect to this particular contract, only time will tell whether or not it was a wise move or a less than wise move.
Question: In general, what do you think of the contracts that were handed out this off-season?
Bettman: I think that a lot of people thought that the arbitration awards were excessive and what that means is that more money, perhaps, went to arbitration-eligible players as opposed to unrestricted free agents. Because the players get a fixed percentage of the gross (league revenue), ultimately it doesn't affect how much we as the league pay out. I think the questions that all sides are going to have to look at over time is, is the money being distributed among the players fairly and equitably. If the answer is yes, then fine. And if not, then we may have to tweak the mechanics of how the money gets distributed. But in the final analysis, it doesn't cost us any more or less. Just like the last season we owed the players money because with the big revenue growth we were under the 54 per cent, if we're over the 54 per cent because of arbitration awards or negotiated contracts, we get money back. That's the benefit of this system and our partnership.
Question: The CBA is entering Year 2. The players ended up not paying escrow last year, and in fact got money back plus interest. What do think of this agreement a year after it has taken affect?
Bettman: I think this is a fair agreement to both sides. It's a terrific agreement for our industry and our fans because we have a true partnership with our players and we're both investing in growing the game. No sports league could ask for anything more than that. That is the most healthy prescription for the future of the game. It's resulted in stable franchises and better competitive balance. And, as importantly, the players get their fair share.
Question: The NHL saw its first offer sheet to a restricted free agent in years and not surprisingly was followed by negative reaction towards Philadelphia GM Bob Clarke for trying it. Your take on it?
Bettman: If the agreement allows it, then people may do it. Historically, and again in this offer sheet, the offering team doesn't get the player. So to the extent it is a futile or useless act, some may question as to why it's done but it's absolutely permitted under the collective bargaining agreement. There's no question about that.
Question: Where does your side stand right now on the issue of visors?
Bettman: Our position has not changed. We believe that it would be the right thing to do to have the players as they enter the league continue to wear their visors. The players, based on the information I'm getting from the Players' Association, do not want to agree to that. This is ultimately a players' decision. I'm hoping that over time we get a change in position and I'm hoping that that change in position isn't catalyzed because of a horrific injury.
Question: Russia still isn't part of the NHL-IIHF transfer agreement. Where do you see this issue heading?
Bettman: I think the casual fan need not worry about it. The fact is we have a terrific relationship with the International Ice Hockey Federation and virtually all of their member federations. The transfer agreement has been in place for over a decade, we pay millions upon millions in development and transfer fees for the players that want to come here. And they do it in an orderly basis, there's no tension, there's no friction, there's no lawsuits. The one exception to that is that Russia has decided for the first time not to participate (in the agreement) and that is obviously its prerogative. I think it would be more orderly, and the Russian clubs would be the beneficiaries of the development fees that we pay, if they participated, but if they choose not to, there's nothing we can do about it and I ultimately believe the players that want to come will want to come. In the short term, as this process is less orderly without the transfer agreement in place and less predictable, you may see some litigation. We saw it last year with (Alexander) Ovechkin and the courts concluded that he had the right to be playing for the Capitals. You may see more of that as we go forward but in the final analysis the players are going to come if that's what they want to do.