NEW YORK – NHL Commissioner Gary Bettman sat down at the center of a long conference table on Friday afternoon at the NHL's offices, partaking in an-hour long conversation with journalists as part of the Associated Press Sports Editors' annual commissioners meetings.
Entering his 22nd year at the helm of the league, Bettman is certainly aware of the ever-changing social media and technology. The first question he posed to the group of media members was if anybody was “periscoping or snapchatting” the meeting and he added, “let the tweeting begin” before he went on to talk about the league's plans for celebrating its 100th anniversary next season, and honoring its top 100 all time players, as well as storylines from the 2015-16 campaign.
On the coach’s challenge
Bettman believes that video replay and the coach’s challenge are working well and exactly what league officials expected.
“Keep in mind, what we promised people is that it’s not the same as video review at the net," he said. "This was to give our officials on opportunity to see on what was a judgment call, could they make a better call? And that’s what we have called it—the better call. When it goes against you, you don’t like it, you question it. When it goes for you, you say what a great system."
When later asked if he was happy how the system worked in the playoffs or if it could be improved, Bettman replied,
“It starts with which is more important, to be fast or to get it right. I know there has been criticism of get rid of the whole system, it takes to long ... Does it really matter if that skate is this much offsides? Well yeah, frankly, if we don’t get it right and it’s important deciding goal or point in the game, we’re going to hear about it.”
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Bettman said some of the calls that have been subject to the coach’s challenge were glaring and obvious, and the challenge was intended to address such events.
“It’s a close call sometimes, and sometimes it’s a hard call to make. Our guys are doing the best they can to get it right and that’s the most important thing. The more we do it, that faster it will get.”
Though not prepared to provide a timetable for an announcement on expansion, Bettman said the league is engaged in the process with Las Vegas and Quebec City, the only cities that are being considered.
“We are on no timetable. I have said if we are going to expand for 2017-18 we got to do it before this summer and the draft and all those good things like free agency and dealing with roster moves. But we didn’t say we had to make a decision that impacted '17-18. We are working with the executive committee involved in the process, evaluating the two applications that we got. We didn’t expect any more than those two based on [which possible new franchise] we thought was real.”
On start times of playoff games
After Blackhawks announcer Pat Foley made pointed comments about the nearly 9 p.m. start of Game 5 between the Chicago Blackhawks and St. Louis Blues, which went into double overtime on Thursday night, Bettman responded to Foley’s comments when asked on Friday.
“When you look at it, we actually play earlier than any other leagues do. We don’t do 9:00 starts even in the Stanley Cup Final. We are trying to distribute all our games nationally. That may sound like an unusual concept, but up until this deal with NBC, nationally in the U.S. we didn’t have all of our playoff games on national television, and in order to get them on national TV to a national audience you need to stagger the times, and sometimes the geography requires that you do that.”
Bettman said that the clubs are comfortable with the start times, and Deputy Commissioner Bill Daly added that although it’s not ideal all the time for clubs, as many want to cater to their own fans, they understand the broader goal is to grow the game nationally.
“The point is, I think Mr. Foley didn’t have his facts straight," Daly said. "And I know there are a lot of people that don’t agree with him. We are trying to make the most number of games available to the most number of people. And depending on how the series are matched up and you are trying to get the national audience involved, which is something we historically didn’t have the option to do.”
On Andrew Shaw's gay slur
“We have programs on a variety of topics that are most important on inclusiveness and diversity with our players," Bettman said. "We sent out a memo last week reminding clubs on game presentation. Sarcasm is one thing but there is a line that can’t be crossed. We try to raise the consciousness of everybody on the issues of inclusiveness and diversity. I think when you have a situation and respond, it again raises the consciousness ... There is a greater awareness on the subject than ever before and I think even Andrew’s response was an acknowledgement of that. So perhaps this was a teaching moment.”
Injury and concussion disclosure
Bettman pointed out that NHLers, probably more than players in any other sport, have to, and usually want to, perform when they are not 100%, and that sometimes it is in their best interests to not be specific about their injuries. He added that the lack of details that are divulged has never been an issue with players.
Daly added that the Department of Player Safety has been trying to make the game safer.
“I think we have been leaders in that space since 1997,” he said when asked about the league's concussion protocol. “We were the first sports league to begin a study of head trauma with our players, the first sports league to do baseline testing, the first sports league to have protocols on diagnosis and return-to-play decisions. We have changed the boards and glass. We have changed the rules."
“I think with the the players' association, we collectively with the players and clubs have done an amazing job in changing the culture of the game,” Bettman said. “Players understand that it’s O.K. to say they’re symptomatic, that they don’t feel right and they shouldn’t be playing, coupled with the fact that we have protocols to take players off for required testing. So, it’s O.K. to admit you have you have a concussion. And that is a huge change in all sports of players not wanting to play through something. You go back 20, 30 years—players will tell you that they wouldn’t tell [anyone] they were symptomatic. When you see a spike (of reported incidents) in 10 years, everybody is doing a better job of diagnosing and reporting concussions. That going up meant we were doing a better job.”
Fighting and head trauma
“[Fighting] has evolved due to a competitive balance," Bettman said. "I think teams are (now) more interested in skilled players than fighting, but the fact of the matter is some people view the act as a thermostat for the game. Play is very physical, checking is encouraged, they skate at each other at 30 miles an hour, they happen to be carrying sticks and it's an emotional game... If you have looked at everything that has transpired, fighting is at its lowest level ever and the game has evolved.”
Fans throwing things on the ice
Bettman said the wristband incident in Philadelphia during Game 3 of the Flyers-Capitals series was unfortunate, as they were handed out as part of a ceremony to honor Ed Snider and many fans threw them on the ice in their anger about the Flyers being routed. He added that he was in contact with Florida Panthers executive chairman Peter Luukko about the plastic rats at the BB&T Center. He credited Joe Louis Arena for getting the octopi off the ice quickly, and that they aren't swung around before being tossed, which sometimes left octopus goop on the ice or a player’s jersey.
“There is only one tradition for throwing things on the ice and that is hat tricks. We don’t think it’s appropriate except in the case of a hat trick to throw things on the ice. Not only is it disruptive to the game, it’s potentially dangerous. If a player skates over it, it could injure him. We are strongly discouraging it.”