Presentation Hall was filled on Nov. 20 with hockey fans as National Hockey League (NHL) commissioner Gary Bettman paid a visit to the School of Communication and Media (SCM). The Hockey Hall of Fame and Jewish Sports Hall of Fame member sat down with SCM director, Keith Strudler, to touch on NHL and ice hockey related subjects.
Bettman spoke about becoming NHL commissioner.
“When the opportunity rose [to be NHL commisioner], I jumped to it, because what could be more fun than that?” Bettman said.
The conversation began by touching upon Bettman’s experience and how he got to where he is today. He was not new to the sports business when he came to the NHL, previously serving as senior vice president and general counsel for the National Basketball Association (NBA).
As Bettman was settling into his new position with the NHL, people were connecting with sports and technology more than ever before, creating an explosion in the league. This allowed Bettman to thrive, immersing in a whole new era for the NHL.
To expand on the technology revolution in the league, Bettman noted that he wants to enlarge this even more by eventually putting microphones on players, as well as pucks. He wants to do anything possible to enhance the league. After all, hockey does have the most action and fan engagement according to the commissioner.
According to Bettman, the late 90s was a “dead puck era,” since there was a big disparity on what to spend on teams and players. He elaborated about how the game of hockey was not competing the way he wanted it to, and how they were trying to win the games by stealing them away at the end of the third period.
Bettman wanted to create revenue sharing for the league, allowing every team to have equal talent and spending. The salary cap made the game faster and allowed the prioritization of offense, which is exactly what Bettman needed.
Bettman mentioned the competition dynamic within the NHL.
“We now have the best competitiveness in the NHL,” Bettman said.
He also touched on last season’s playoffs and the St. Louis Blues’ comeback that won them the biggest reward in hockey: the Stanley Cup. The team came from a huge deficit, being at the bottom of the standings for the majority of the season, then later going on to win their first Stanley Cup. Bettman credits this to the game becoming much stronger.
He then went on to speak about the Vegas Golden Knights, the newest expansion team in the NHL. The team had a triumphant first season in 2017-2018, with a 54-27-7 record. Bettman explained that Vegas was a no brainer for the NHL after contemplating if this team would enhance ice hockey, especially after conducting a season ticket drive in only the local Vegas areas. The drive was more than successful and showed the league that they made the right decision.
Bettman talked about the benefits of having a team in Vegas.
“Having the first and only professional team in Vegas would be great for the league,” Bettman said as he discussed the expansion decision.
Not only was the team successful, but the fan support was also there. Following the Vegas shooting at the start of the team’s inaugural season, the players went to the community to support the locals. Their first game brought the entirety of Vegas together, creating a community bond like no other.
Bettman spoke about the play of the Vegas Golden Knights.
“They [Vegas Golden Knights] were playing for a higher calling, to heal Las Vegas,” Bettman said.
An important subject to the NHL, the topic of hockey and youth athletes was next. Bettman started to speak on the programs and opportunities the league offers, such as Try Hockey for Free. It involved engaging and including young players as much as possible to create initiatives for these young athletes.
Bettman explained the NHL’s commitment to working with those at a starting level, engaging with the community and giving back.
“[The NHL is] committed to working hockey at the grass roots level because our players and franchises believe it is good to give back,” Bettman said.
USA Hockey also plays an immense role in recruiting athletes, being one of the largest programs for hockey in the world.
Bettman commented on youth participation in hockey.
“Hockey is defying the odds in youth participation,” Bettman said.
The conversation shifted toward the globalization of the NHL and more players coming in from all over the world. This makes the league and the game better according to Bettman. It has also contributed to a larger fanbase and presence.
When asked about potentially expanding to Europe and other countries, Bettman explained that it is not something in the league’s mind. Traveling across the Atlantic would be an issue for the NHL’s jam-packed 82 game season. In addition, European countries already have their own established ice hockey leagues.
However, Bettman actually enjoys the idea of other leagues in Europe. He believes they are strong and provide the NHL with experienced and talented players.
The globalization he is currently focusing on is in China, where they have held NHL games in the 2017 and 2018 preseason. The league is working with the Chinese government to help them develop ice hockey, and potentially play more games there.
Bettman praised the sport he commissions. He knows that people will always pay for sports and value it, especially when it comes to ice hockey. Giving fans what they want is something that the NHL has always delivered. Bettman will continue to expand the NHL and make the game even greater than what the league has created.