Commentary

Bettman steers NHL to 'seismic' change

Updated: December 6, 2011, 1:45 PM ET
By Scott Burnside | ESPN.com

PEBBLE BEACH, Calif. -- Whether or not you hate the new four-conference format adopted by the NHL -- and trust us, there are teams that do silently hate it -- you have to pause and admire commissioner Gary Bettman and his ability to steer the unwieldy ship that is the league.

Heading into Monday's meeting of the league's board of governors, there appeared to be significant resistance to the new four-conference plan, especially from Eastern Conference teams who, by and large, preferred the status quo of the current six-division, two-conference setup.

They weren't crazy about adding more travel to their season and there were concerns about introducing unfamiliar opponents to the schedule.

There was some speculation that the 30 teams might not be able to agree on an alignment package by the end of the two-day meeting.

And yet, all of that worry and bluster dissipated like dry leaves on a windy day.

In about an hour, the deal was done to undertake what one executive described as a "seismic" change to the game's structure.

Why?

Because no one builds consensus like Bettman.

It may take plenty of arm-twisting, cajoling, sweet-talking and the occasional bullying, but the job gets done.

This realignment concept was the plan Bettman favored and, regardless of the fact the league portrayed itself as a kind of dispassionate bystander on the contentious issue, it was the plan he made sure got the 20 votes needed to make it a reality.

"We weren't selling and we weren't lobbying, we were informing," Bettman insisted.

He was asked how hard he had to "inform" teams, especially those in the Eastern Conference, to get the deal done, but he wouldn't bite.

"I went through both proposals and I read out the pros and cons of both, so that may have short-circuited people's desires to say things. Because, in terms of what was good and what was bad, it was kind of laid out there for everybody," Bettman said.

Bettman did point out that he had no reason to do away with the current system.

"One of the reasons I had nothing against the existing format is I invented it," Bettman said.

He didn't point out that he invented this new system, as well.

The commissioner often likes to remind people that he works at the behest of the owners. But over the years he has developed an uncanny ability to synthesize 30 different viewpoints, personalities, needs, dislikes, concerns and desires into one vision for the league.

If that vision is as much his as the owners, so be it.

"It's typical Gary Bettman," said Toronto GM Brian Burke, who used to work for Bettman as the head of league discipline. "It's like a Chicago election in the '30s. He's got a pretty good idea which way it's going; not that it's fixed but he's got a pretty good sense of where the votes are going to come.

"When I worked at the league and people'd say, 'How do you think this is going to go?' we got a good laugh out of that because we already knew how it was going to go most of the time."

The Leafs are a good example of how this process unfolded under Bettman.

Like many teams in the East, they had no interest in change. Burke acknowledged he was concerned not about the cost of additional travel -- it's been pegged at anywhere between $400,000 and $850,000 -- but about the wear and tear on the players and the impact on the quality of the game.

But Burke said Monday he thinks the league's schedule makers will be able to address those concerns, so the Leafs supported the new structure.

"It had very strong support and we support it too," he said.

"I think it makes sense for our league. I think it helps a couple of partners that really need this."

Whether it's simply a matter of Bettman getting what he wants or rather his ability to intuit what will work the best for the most, Monday's performance was admirable in its simplicity.

Did everyone get what they wanted?

No. But that's not how life works, is it?

"I think the comments from the teams, those who weighed in, people took a thoughtful approach and it wasn't the least bit acrimonious," Winnipeg Jets chairman and governor Mark Chipman said.

"I think it was a matter of everybody trying to make their points but I got the sense that people were acting in the best interests of the league and there was a compelling argument that what was agreed to today was in the best interests of everybody. You can't satisfy everybody, everybody knew that going in."

A large number of executives who spoke to ESPN.com said they quietly favored a simple swap of the Winnipeg Jets for the Detroit Red Wings or Columbus Blue Jackets.

But by moving to a four-conference setup, the league keeps Detroit more or less happy by keeping them in a group of teams that are only one time zone away at the most and cutting their travel to the West Coast.

Minnesota, a current Northwest Division resident, is happy because its move in with other Central time zone teams.

Pittsburgh and Philadelphia remain happy as they will continue to play each other six times a year.

Go on down the list. Is there truly a team that is an obvious loser in this new landscape?

This was "as much a global solution as possible," Bettman said.

Even lame duck Phoenix, still teetering between making a home in the desert or being ripped up and plunked down somewhere else, is better accommodated with the new system than under the old.

"There is flexibility in this format," Bettman acknowledged. "Which is perhaps one of the reasons people were comfortable. We're not planning on any moves, we don't want any moves, but if we find ourselves confronted with one, the way it's set up gives us a little more flexibility."

For a guy that gets booed at pretty much every league event -- except in Winnipeg where he is now pretty much a god -- Bettman has proven a knack for avoiding turbulence.

He's found new owners when he's needed them, forged a new collective bargaining agreement with a salary cap and now he's found a new alignment for his league.

"I think since the lockout [what] we've been able to do as a league from a competitive standpoint with the new CBA, from the business model, I think has been a tremendous thing, and I think you have to look at his leadership as part of that," Pittsburgh president and CEO David Morehouse said.

Scott Burnside covers the NHL for ESPN.com.