PEBBLE BEACH, Calif. -- It wasn’t discussed in the actual meeting itself, but commissioner Gary Bettman’s responses to media inquiries on future expansion generated the most buzz Tuesday as the NHL’s board of governors meeting wrapped up.
For the record, Bettman once again insisted that there is no current plan in place to expand, nor any timeline the league has established to do so -- if ever -- but what made an impression on the assembled media was that Bettman was willing to spend time tackling the subject.
In years past at this same meeting, he would quickly brush aside expansion talk from the media. On Tuesday, he was at least willing to acknowledge its possibility.
So that, on its own, raised eyebrows.
“We’re getting lots of expressions of interest and no decisions have been made to do anything other than listen so we haven’t embarked on a formal expansion process, but when people want to talk to us, we listen,’’ Bettman said after two days of meetings with owners concluded.
That ignited a round of questions from media pressing on the issue, including what possible criteria existed for potential expansions groups.
“When there’s an expression of interest, you look at three factors predominately, showstoppers so to speak,” Bettman said. "You want to understand the market and can it support NHL hockey? Would it be a good addition to the league? Two, you’ve got to have an arena and three, and perhaps most important, it comes down to ownership. At 10,000 feet, those are the criteria you’re dealing with.”
Seattle and Quebec City are considered by most as the front-runners, with a second team in Toronto another possibility. Houston, Portland, Kansas City and Las Vegas also have been mentioned in the past as potential expansion cities.
Just don’t ask the commissioner to rank them.
“There’s no ranking. Please stop,’’ he said, growing somewhat annoyed, perhaps, with the media’s line of expansion questioning.
"This isn’t like a game where we’re going to come up with a score at the end of the scrum. The fact is there are lots of expressions of interest from lots of different places and that’s great, it’s gratifying. It shows the business and the game are healthy because there is so much interest and people want to be a part of the game and invest in the game. That’s a good thing.”
And again, Bettman said, it’s not a guarantee that the league will expand.
“The questions, while they are good and they’re valid, presume that we are necessarily interested in expanding. Nobody has made that decision.”
Bettman then pointed out how interesting it was that the media was focusing on it.
“My, my how far we have come since the summer when all the articles and speculation was about all these franchises that were supposedly in trouble, which we never believed were,’’ said the commissioner. "We sold three franchises in six weeks. We have strong ownership, the franchises have never been stronger. So we went from relocation in your view and distress to now we should be expanding. Everybody needs to slow down. We don’t operate like that. Everything in due course. If, in fact, there’s a due course to pursue.”
No question the mood of this board of governors meeting was unlike any other in the past decade, the league not dogged by some of the issues of the past like the ownership situation in Phoenix, labor uncertainty or lackluster TV deals.
None of that at this meeting. You can argue Bettman has perhaps never had a more positive board meeting in his career, having found new owners over the past six months in Phoenix, New Jersey and Florida, signing a massive Canadian TV deal, and of course last January finally negotiating labor peace with a new collective bargaining agreement, which pushed the players down to a 50 percent share of hockey-related revenue.
It’s been a heck of a year, business-wise, for the much-maligned commissioner. All of which is exactly why we’re waiting for the expansion shoe to drop.
It would not surprise anyone if the league officially began the expansion process a year from now at next December's meeting, and if not then, a year later, one would think.
Part of the league’s long-term stability is its ability to avoid another work stoppage after the lockout that marred the sport last season, as well as in 2004-05 and in 1994-95. Enough already.
On that issue, the league feels its relationship with the players continues to grow stronger.
“There’s no doubt our ongoing relationship with the players' association is more regular and uniform that it has been in my memory,” NHL deputy commissioner Bill Daly said Tuesday after the board meeting wrapped up. "We deal with them on all the issues associated with the game. We work through issues. Sometimes we don’t always agree, surprise, surprise. I think we have a strong working foundation and hopefully that will continue [to] improve in time.”
Then Bettman, standing next to Daly, said:
“I’d like to add to that that if you think that we went through a period where we had five different executive directors of the union in a relatively brief period of time. There is stability now in the union and that is a positive, not just for the players and the union; that’s a positive for us because you can’t build a strong working relationship based on trust when the cast of characters is changing every few months. So the strength and stability of the union, I think, is important as we try to accomplish the things we want to do moving forward.”
WINNIPEG OUTDOOR GAME?
Colleague Gary Lawless of the Winnipeg Free Press reported Monday night that the Jets have been given the green light from the NHL to host the Heritage Classic in 2016, quoting Jets chairman Mark Chipman.
Yes and no, Bettman said Tuesday, but mostly yes.
“We had a discussion with Mark Chipman where we said we would like to have an outdoor game in Winnipeg, Heritage Classic, and Mark said, ‘that’s great.’ We said we’re not ready to make any announcements and what is your preference on dates? He gave us a preference of ’16. There’s no formal agreement, announcement or anything else,” Bettman said. "It’s still a work in progress, but at some point in the next few years, perhaps ’16, perhaps not, we’ll have an outdoor game in Winnipeg.”
Bring your parka!
REVIEW OF SUBSTANCE ABUSE PROGRAM
Bill Daly gave governors Tuesday an update on an independent review the league commissioned on the NHL-NHLPA Substance Abuse Behavorial and Health program, which came in the wake of the tragic deaths of Derek Boogaard and Rick Rypien two summers ago.
“In connection with the tough summer we had a couple of summers ago, the league committed to everything we do in respect to that program and other programs with respect to players' mental health,” Daly said. "We commissioned jointly with the players' association and cooperated with them on an independent review of our program and I reported on the results of that review today. The bottom line is the report was good, that the program is doing what it is intended to do, it is helping players and former players in times of need. Obviously some recommendations in improvement more in the administrative improvement than in the substance. The board is very comfortable with the program we put in place.”
As for drug testing itself, the league’s program is far from perfect, but it’s accurate to say it’s more detailed than it was before.
“We did broaden testing pretty significantly as part of the CBA,” Daly said. "We have year-round testing. We broadened the prohibited substance list. We’re working on and evaluating whether we can improve the program further by adding an element of HGH testing; quite frankly I’m not sure on that yet, but that certainly is something we are evaluating with the players' association. We’re happy with our performance-enhancing substance program.”
Daly updated owners on Olympic logistics for Sochi, but there was no talk of Olympic plans post-Russia. That’s because there aren’t any at this point. That remains to be determined at a later date.
"I think the issue on that is twofold,” Bettman said. "One, we're going to have to evaluate the experience so it's not going to happen until after that. And two, it's going to be put into the context of what else we may want to be doing internationally. And as it always is, it's a joint decision with the players' association."
What’s clear, however, is that all signs point to the return of the World Cup of Hockey, run jointly by the league and NHLPA.
"Yesterday, when John Collins gave a business update, we talked a little bit about the discussions that we were having in general owith the players' association,” Bettman said. "I think it's no secret that we collectively believe having a World Cup on a regular basis makes sense, the specifics we're not there yet. It's something we need to do jointly with the players' association."
NHL disciplinarian Brendan Shanahan addressed owners Tuesday, and of interest was his use of Matt Cooke as a great example of how organizations can help a player rehabilitate himself from a repeat offender to a clean player. The Penguins frnt office and coaching staff helped Cooke change his ways, and it’s the kind of thing Shanahan would like to see from other teams as well with their own players.
"Number one, it goes to Matt Cooke in wanting to change and knowing he had to change,” Penguins general manager Ray Shero said of his former player, now with the Minnesota Wild. "It was part and parcel the organization and the player. That was a 17-game suspension. It was the moment he needed. Our coaches spent a lot of time with Matt, going over video, and some of the videos were about showing him a safe hit, not destroying a guy, and that’s been part of his M.O. So for the Department of Player Safety, if they can look at one guy and say if Matt Cooke can change …’’
I think what Shanahan was really saying here, if governors were paying attention and reading between the lines, is that coaches in particular need to take greater responsibility in helping players understand what’s right and wrong on the ice.
As for Shanahan and his work so far handing out discipline, there was not a movement from owners asking him to dole out longer suspensions as some people had suggested might happen.
Status quo was the message.
"I believe the sense in the room is that Brendan Shanahan and the Department of Player Safety has the confidence of the board of governors,” Bettman said. "He certainly has my confidence. He is doing a good job. My guess is people don't analyze the things he does and the detail that he does. If you studied the videos that he's put online, the specific instances where supplemental discipline is imposed or the more general tapes that he's put online explaining what the standards are of play, people should take a great deal of comfort that we're being extraordinarily proactive. In a game where through the course of a season you have 55,000 hits, as Brendan said today there are probably 50 or 100 that we don't like, but it's again about an ongoing education process. It's about modifying an element of the game's culture and we think we've made positive, dramatic steps forward."
Added Daly, "I think Brendan was able to demonstrate to the board that players as a group are starting to change behavior, and behavior is getting better than when he first took this job. I think the board was very comfortable that we're making progress in this area."
Colin Campbell and Stephen Walkom walked the governors through the new rules and how they’re working so far this season, specifically the uniform rule (no allowing players to tuck in their jersey) and the hybrid icing.
"The learning curve for the hybrid icing has been great, the players are getting it, the officials are getting it,” Walkom said. "In a lot of games you don’t even notice it. On the uniforms, there’s been a real buy-in by almost all the teams through the equipment managers. We’ve only had one penalty [called]. Because we warn them and the players fix it. They’re not intentionally altering their equipment anymore. There’s been a lot of conforming. The players aren’t coming on the ice wanting to break the rule, they’re wanting to wear their uniform properly, which is good for them because it’s safer."
The most popular question on the hybrid icing, Walkom says, is whether there are more icing calls because of it. The answer?
"There’s about one more icing every 9-10 games. That’s it."
SNIDER ON FIGHTING
The Flyers and fighting have been synonymous for years. So my colleague Craig Custance of ESPN The Magazine certainly took the opportunity when Flyers owner Ed Snider walked by Tuesday to broach the subject with him.
"I don't know that I really want to talk about it that much. I don't like staged fights, never have," Snider said. "I don't like the fact that guys are banging their fists up against helmets and masks. It's a different game."