NHL commissioner Gary Bettman will make the trip to Ottawa this weekend for the 2005 entry draft at the Westin Hotel.
Bettman is thrilled a new collective bargaining agreement has been reached with the NHL Players' Association and he's bullish on the league's future following the bitter dispute that cost the 2004-05 season.
Yesterday, Bettman sat down for a one-on-one telephone interview from his office in New York with Sun hockey writer Bruce Garrioch. Here's an edited transcript of their conversation:
SUN: Did you feel it was necessary to go through (a season-long lockout) to get the right system in place?
BETTMAN: We went through this process knowing the system we had was broken. There's no better example of that than a city like Ottawa, which is a great hockey market for us with great fans. Hockey at the NHL level should work in Ottawa and yet we almost lost the franchise. We knew we needed to have a new system and we knew we needed to do whatever it would take to ensure the future of places like Ottawa.
SUN: In this system, will it ensure the future of all 30 NHL teams as far as where they are now? A follow up would be: Will all 30 teams have the potential to make money under this new system?
BETTMAN: First of all, I believe that all 30 teams can be economically healthy and competitive where they are currently located. There may be a unique situation where there's a building issue and that will ultimately have to be dealt with in a market like Pittsburgh.
But the markets under this system should all be able to be healthy and competitive. Every team that is run well should at least be able to break even. We would hope that a number of clubs would be able to do better. But we're looking for stability and competitiveness and competitive balance in the first instance.
This system should do it while at the same time it gives the players their fair share and it gives the fans comfort that this is the type of system that makes the game vibrant, healthy and give them hope that their team every year has a chance to win it all. That's what you want.
SUN: Is there one element of the CBA you feel that the ramifications will have a great benefit to the game?
BETTMAN: It's interesting. A lot has been discussed over the course of the negotiations. I always wanted a link system because I wanted the players to be our partners in growing the game and making the game healthy. I always wanted to be in a situation where we would be working together with the fans across everything we do to make this game healthy. The fact that we are partners is the most important element of this system.
SUN: How do you grow the game?
BETTMAN: We make sure the product on the ice is as strong as possible and we make sure that we are doing all the things off the ice to connect with our fans in terms of how they relate to NHL hockey.
SUN: You have made significant rule changes. What do you think will be the reaction?
BETTMAN: Two things: The changes that we made we did because we were listening to what the fans were telling us and we wanted to be responsive. As with most sport issues, you can always find people to debate either side of the issue, but we think that all the changes that we're putting in are intended to emphasize skill and speed and flow and excitement and entertainment.
When it comes to excitement and entertainment, the fact that we've listened to our fans who have said, 'Let's see if we can get rid of games ending in ties. Let's have the thrill of victory and the agony of defeat.' Fans were telling us they'd rather go home with the agony of defeat than watch a game end in a tie. As part of the experience, this is the next logical step on 4-on-4 overtime. We think (the shootout) is going to be fun.
The other rule changes are intended to try to open up the game and try to reorder the balance between offence and defence.
SUN: Will opening it up help grow the game?
BETTMAN: Growing the game is a funny term. We have undergone a lot of growth in the last decade. What I'm now focused on more than anything is reconnecting with our fans. Growth will come down the road. In the short term, we want to get back with our fans: Our season-ticket holders, our casual fans and the people that watch us on television. We want to make sure that they are reconnecting with the game because they've been through a difficult time and this is the opportunity to make it up to them.
SUN: Will Sidney Crosby in Pittsburgh help?
BETTMAN: We are always agnostic as to where our players go. I do think what's fascinating is the ongoing story of (Pittsburgh captain) Mario Lemieux and Sidney playing together and how quickly Sidney reaches his potential at the NHL level. I know people are very excited about Sidney coming to the NHL and he in his interviews around the lottery was very excited about coming. This will make for a great story and a great source of attention to our game.
But, there are a lot of feel good stories. This is an exciting time. In places that have survived bankruptcies, in places where fans had to worry about the future of the franchise, those days are gone. People can focus on what takes place on the ice and people can focus on how great our players are because we finally got to something that I've been a proponent of for a decade, that is eliminating the distractions. The game is going to be healthy now.
SUN: Was it too difficult to pull together an open NHL entry draft for the fans in 10 days?
BETTMAN: The fact of the matter is there's a lot that goes on in putting on a draft. Maybe it's a credit to our special events department as it formerly existed that our events go so smoothly and seamlessly. There's a lot to do.
Neither of our organizations had the resources or the time to do it right, and we're facing inordinate time pressure to get things moving and up and running for the season. Teams have to sign players, even the issue of families coming in on short notice and accommodations. All the things that we traditionally do to make the draft work the way it historically has, we couldn't do.
As people know by being at the offices in New York and Toronto, we've been decimated in terms of having our full organization here. We felt while we needed to have a draft to get up and running quickly, we couldn't do it in 10 days. People say we had a year to prepare, but we didn't have a year to prepare because we didn't know when we were going to be done. We couldn't put it off into later August.
We wanted to come to Ottawa as part of respect to the economy. We are committing to a full-blown, full-fledged draft in 2008 at the Corel Centre and doing it the right way. We just weren't in a position to do it the right way on a massive scale with the short notice we had.
SUN: How did the lockout effect you personally? How were you treated by the fans?
BETTMAN: The fans were extremely supportive. Hockey fans are the best: They are the most informed, they are the most connected and they know what is going on.
This just wasn't me going to my local supermarket, I'm talking about when I was in Canada ... it didn't matter where I was, the fans were saying they understood why I was doing what I was doing and were supportive. They were telling me to just get it fixed.