By HOWARD BERGER
NEW YORK (Oct. 28) – A sage, hardened veteran of the media that covers the National Hockey League warned me, in no uncertain terms, about attempting to write the blog you have just started to read – one that ventures to portray Gary Bettman as a credible, upstanding member of the human race.
“Forget about it… you will be annihilated,” my well-meaning mentor cautioned in reference to the NHL Commissioner of the past 19 years. “Public opinion will swallow you whole.”
As another NHL lifer – Cliff Fletcher – might say: “Public Shmublic.”
Not even a dash of trepidation accompanied me to NHL headquarters here in Manhattan earlier this week; in fact, I couldn’t wait to discuss the topic of portrayal with the league’s No. 1 figure. Trekking northward for 15 blocks on 6th Ave. (better-known here as Avenue of the Americas), I came upon the unassuming office tower – between 46th and 47th St. – that encompasses the NHL’s nerve-center in a sprawling, 15th-floor arrangement.
Security in the building, and on the NHL level, is such that President Obama would be turned away if not for an official invitation. A comparative slug like me induced a thorough character review; two pieces of photo-identification, and a phone-call to Bettman’s trusty aide – Frank Brown – who saw a live image of his beleaguered guest from a web-camera before sanctioning further movement.
THE SPOTLESS, MIRRORED LOGO (ABOVE) THAT GREETS A VISITOR TO THE NHL’S NEW YORK HEADQUARTERS.
Moments later, Brown – sportingly attired, as always – escorted me through a dizzying labyrinth of hallways, whereupon we arrived at the Commissioner’s office. Perusing one of the innumerable documents that cross his desk each day, Bettman warmly greeted his Canadian visitor, who could not conceal astonishment.
The Commissioner’s lair, though modestly decorated, is roughly the size of the main airport terminal in Regina, Saskatchewan. Windowed on two sides, it offers a northward view up cab-infested 6th Ave.; past the famed Radio City Music Hall; ending at the south perimeter of Central Park.
Along with an enormous desk and matching bureau, it has two seating areas: one comprised of a round, wooden table with four chairs; the other, more inviting, a black-leather couch; two lounging seats and a rectangular coffee-table. Proudly displayed on the table is a large book entitled Canada’s Olympic Hockey History: 1920 to 2010, authored by Andrew Podnieks and personally signed to Bettman by Canadian Prime Minister Stephen Harper.
NHL COMMISSIONER GARY BETTMAN RELAXES IN HIS SPRAWLING, NEW YORK OFFICE, WHICH PROVIDES A NIFTY VIEW UP 6th AVENUE (BELOW) TOWARD CENTRAL PARK.
My motivation for requesting this audience – generously arranged by Brown on short notice – was simple: in more than three decades of following the NHL for radio and print, I have never been exposed to an individual that has taken as merciless and ceaseless a pounding as Gary Bettman.
Overwhelmingly, this condemnation – devoid of even trace-levels of balance – has hailed from north of the Canada-U.S. border, where hockey and its components are viewed possessively. Often, it has crossed the line toward personal assault – the Commissioner’s modest height spawning frequent mention – and has occasionally been wrought with an anti-Semitic undertone; Bettman, like sporting counterparts David Stern and Bud Selig, is Jewish.
Moreover, a man that has shared the NHL’s top position with only five others [Frank Calder, Red Dutton, Clarence Campbell, John Zeigler and Gil Stein] is liberally portrayed as a thin-skinned dolt; defensive and insincere; blatantly devoid – as an American – of passion for the game and its affluent history, while possessing a fatal commitment to apathetic hockey markets in the land of his birth.
Tendering this depiction to Bettman induced a brief moment of howling laughter – mostly, I sensed, from its bare-faced offering. Still, it phased him in no other way.
“You cannot do this job unless you have thick skin and balance in your life,” Bettman said, refuting one of the aforementioned charges. “I understand who I am; what I’m doing, and why I make the decisions I do. If you don’t like them, I’m sorry. That’s life. I’ve always understood that when you have a high-profile position, people are going to be for you or against you… there’s not much middle ground. Those who make personal attacks don’t know me. If they write that I’m short – now there’s a bulletin – or I don’t have model good looks, what am I going to do? I am who I am and I’m comfortable in my skin.
“I’ve got a great family,” Bettman continued. “I’ve been well-educated; I’ve got many great friends; I live a terrific life in which I get to do what I love every day, and so if people want to be critical, they’ll be critical. The people I work for – who decide on my employment – obviously are comfortable with what I’m doing. I work extremely hard and get enormous satisfaction from the things we do here on a daily basis. I get satisfaction from working with terrific people. If others want to say nasty things about me, or boo me, let ’em. Nobody is above criticism and you just go with the flow. As long as you believe in yourself and make decisions for the right reasons, that’s good enough.”
What Bettman finds more of a challenge is the manner in which criticism has effected his family. “When my kids were younger, I had to help them develop insulation on my behalf,” he admitted. “I tell my wife and kids today ‘you’re not allowed to Google me.’ They’ve been in arenas where I’ve been booed and my guess is, when they were younger, it was a little disconcerting… not because of the noise of the booing, but because they love me. But, when they see that I’m fine it with, they understand, over time, it’s no big deal.”
Bettman has been a lightning-rod on both sides of the border – and probably always will be – for his leading role in the canceled NHL season of 2004-05. Fact is, he promised incoming and re-located franchises (Nashville, Atlanta, Columbus, Minnesota, Carolina, Phoenix) he would ultimately obtain a salary cap (“cost certainty” is the preferred phrase); he was vehemently upheld in that pursuit – for better or for worse – by several of the most influential senior governors in the league (notably, Jeremy Jacobs of Boston), and his yearning to dethrone Players Association director Bob Goodenow – while intensely personal – also yielded near-unanimous support at the ownership level.
The Commissioner’s blueprint – beyond limiting payroll – assured that no corner of the American pro sporting map would be without the game. The potential for attracting a truly national arrangement with any of the big U.S. television networks – a mostly futile exercise for the NHL since the mid-’70s – required blanket involvement from coast-to-coast: a nothing-ventured, nothing-gained concept. Neither Bettman nor the owners deserve condemnation for such a plan; none of the “big three” sports south of the border – football, baseball or basketball – would thrive as national TV properties without similar infiltration. And though clubs in several of the newer hockey markets have lost substantial money (deficits exacerbated by near-collapse of the world economy in 2008), the league, as a whole, is flourishing.
The NHL has capitalized on the eruption of digital technology, thereby limiting its strict reliance on TV endowment. At the same time, the league’s contract with NBC – originally devoid of a rights-holding tariff – has evolved into a 10-year arrangement worth roughly $2 billion. That may be peanuts by NFL standards but it yields more than twice the annual return of the previous hockey contract. Cable-TV exposure has been effected by severing a relationship with sports monolith ESPN and Bettman may privately wish he had done that one over.
Still, the league – with its digital properties and Center-Ice TV package – is providing fans greater exposure and access than ever before. It has its own TV and radio network, and its annual outdoor game in the New Year – the Bridgestone Winter Classic – has become a staple of the Bettman regime, attracting both hard-core and casual fans (the Rangers and Flyers play this season, on Jan. 2, at Citizen’s Bank Park in Philadelphia).
None of this, however, seems particularly relevant among the vast majority of those who cover the game north of the border. Bettman could eradicate famine and plague; he’d still be viewed as a know-nothing shrimp. It has evolved, at times, into a battle of media one-upsmanship: “I can trash the NHL Commissioner better than you can.” As far as Bettman is concerned, let ’em rip.
“Like I said before: I look the way I look; I’m the height that I am; if I’m an American and some people in Canada don’t like that, I’m sorry. Although,” Bettman countered, “I get, by and large, extremely warm treatment and a very good reception everywhere I go in Canada. I’ve spent a lot of time there and have many good friends who live in Canada. I have the utmost respect for the country and its leading role in game of hockey. I have educated myself about Canadian culture and the political and business environment. I’m not one of these Americans who thinks Canada is the 51st state. I know it isn’t.
“For my 50th birthday (in 2002), my wife made arrangements for us to take seven couples away. You know where we went? The Canadian Rockies. I think I understand the passion of hockey in that country. The fact that people in the United States may also be passionate about hockey doesn’t diminish the game, nor should it diminish the game in Canada. That people in the United States love something that is so special and important in Canada gives respect to this game and its birth-place. I think hockey is Canada’s gift to the world.”
Bettman’s detractors north of the border often refer to his defensive posture in radio and television interviews. The Commissioner does tend to get his back up when challenged, yet rarely is he asked a question in a way that doesn’t put him on the defensive. “When I’m being interviewed, I don’t create the environment,” Bettman said. “I’m merely a guest. So, if the environment being created for me is pleasant and cordial, you can assume the interview will be pleasant and cordial. If the environment is hostile and attacking, you respond as best you can.
“There are people who have interviewed me that think the appropriate thing to do is try and score points. To them, I’ve always thought ‘good luck.’ Frankly, I don’t care if they try to score points with me. If they’re doing it about the game, that’s another matter. I am a fierce defender of the game. I don’t like to see the game attacked when it shouldn’t be. I don’t like to see the life’s work of our players, and the people charged with putting on these games every night, diminished or portrayed negatively when it shouldn’t be. So, I’ll defend this game with every ounce of energy I have.
“I’m happy to be the lightning-rod,” Bettman continued, displaying raw emotion for the only time during our hour-long interview. “If that can deflect negative attention from the game and the owners, I’m fine with it. I’m a lawyer by trade. To me, it’s all about the client. My clients are the teams and the sport. That’s my view of the world… it’s the way I was trained.”
BETTMAN ON THE CHARGE THAT HE IS TOO DEFENSIVE WHILE BEING INTERVIEWED: “I’LL DEFEND THIS GAME WITH EVERY OUNCE OF ENERGY I HAVE.”
Bettman has chosen to no longer make his annual playoff appearance on Hockey Night In Canada with host Ron MacLean. Though Bettman and MacLean are at the apex of their professions, those television moments brought out the best in neither man. MacLean often tried to cram an hour’s worth of topics into 10 minutes and Bettman rarely allowed him to finish a question. In the end, it proved of little merit.
“I have absolutely nothing against Ron; he’s a good man and he’s popular across Canada for a lot of good reasons,” Bettman said. “My problem, again, was related to the game. I felt our TV segment was creating a distraction in the middle of the Stanley Cup final. It got to be a bit of a circus and people were talking about that rather than the game. It became a spectacle and – to be honest – people, for years, were telling me to stop [going on]. I want the attention at that time of year, in particular, to be on the players and the game.
“Again, it’s nothing personal. I have always valued making myself as accessible as I can to the media. In Canada, I go on with [CBC news anchor] Peter Mansbridge when I’m asked; I go on with George Strombolopoulos when I’m asked. It’s much more about the environment created, and the timing.”
No environment in hockey is as bizarre, or disrespectful, than the moments, each spring, when Bettman is on the ice presenting the Conn Smythe Trophy and the Stanley Cup. Or, trying to present both above the hoots and cat-calls from those in attendance. Unfortunately for the Commissioner, the Stanley Cup has been won by the visiting team each of the past four years (Anaheim, in 2007, the last club to win at home), exacerbating whatever hostility the fans feel toward Bettman.
“When I’m presenting the Cup, it’s not about me – it’s about the team receiving it,” Bettman said. “When I’m presenting the Conn Smythe, it’s not about me, it’s about the player. And, that’s who I feel badly for. That player and the winning team have worked so hard for their accomplishment that it may detract from what should be a terrific moment.
“That said, I think most people, at this point, have begun to look at [the booing] as a bit of a joke. When Tim Thomas came up in Vancouver [to receive the Conn Smythe] and Zdeno Chara came over [for the Stanley Cup], we were all joking about the noise. For me, it’s no big deal. I’ve done it enough times now and I know that TV can pick up what I’m saying, so I just talk. People in the arena, if they’re booing and they don’t want to hear it, that’s fine.
“I don’t remember being booed in Carolina or Anaheim [the last two occasions in which the home team won the championship],” Bettman said. “In fact, Philadelphia [when Chicago won the Cup there in 2010] wasn’t that bad. The Flyers’ fans were pretty respectful. I walked out – they booed – then it got quiet when I started to present the Cup.”
During our chat, Bettman swore he doesn’t mind being the “villain” – especially the “villain” associated with the lost NHL season of 2004-05. Though the lock-out certainly didn’t have the economic impact Bettman and the owners envisioned, he still contends it was anything but a fruitless exercise – the season-long pause enabling those within the sport to enact some fundamental change.
“Most people that communicate with us tell us the game is much better than it was before [the lock-out],” he said. “Would the game have changed for the better if we had played that season? I’m not so sure. I get that reaction more than I get grief for what happened.
“Look, in essence, I’m the equivalent of a politician. Public figures get criticized. And, just so you understand that I’m not delusional about this: Do I think people boo me just because that’s the same thing they do to a governor, or a premier, or the President? No. There are some people that genuinely don’t like me and the job that I do. I’m fine with that. I don’t expect that everyone will approve of me.
“As long as the people that employ me are satisfied – and the game is growing at the rate it should be – that’s good enough… and it always will be.”
Facebook: Howard Berger [Thornhill ON]