Tuesday, Feb. 26 at 1 p.m. ET

National Hockey League

Gary Bettman
NHL Commissioner
Tuesday, February 26, 2008; 1:00 PM

NHL Commissioner Gary Bettman was online Tuesday, Feb. 26 at 1 p.m. ET to take your questions about the league's future plans and the role Washington plays in them.

A transcript follows.

Bettman will also be on Washington Post Live today at 5 p.m. -- you can watch it streaming on our site and on Comcast SportsNet.


Gary Bettman: Hello, everyone, it's a pleasure to be with you today.


Washington, D.C.: Mr. Bettman,

Given the recent financial struggles of the league that resulted in the lockout and the lack of a TV contract, do you find it surprising and/or concerning that we're starting to see mega-contracts that are approaching nine figures? I realize that spread out over ten years, these figures are payable but don't these deals have trickle-down affects on a team's total payroll? Thank you for taking my question.

Gary Bettman: Revenues for the last two seasons -- and likely this season -- will be at an all-time high. The work stoppage resulted in an economic system under which all teams can afford to be competitive. In addition, every team has a salary cap, so what the teams pay will never exceed a certain percentage of revenues. The end result means that team success will depend on how you choose to spend your dollars. In the case of the Capitals, ownership determined that it was important that Alex Ovechkin play his entire career in Washington. That's great if you're a fan of the Capitals.


New York: What plans do you have to improve the officiating in the league? I understand you have a problem in that the high portion of your revenues that comes from the live gate means the home fans need to be entertained, but the blatant homerism of the officiating turns a lot of fans off.

Gary Bettman: We have the best officials in the world, and they have the hardest officiating job in the world. We are spending more time, money and effort than ever before on the performance of our officials. They are coached, critiqued and held accountable for their performance. Like playing, and coaching, there is a human element to this game, and while there occasionally will be mistakes, the officials are overwhelmingly correct in the calls and non-calls they make. When an official does not perform to acceptable standards, he can be replaced. There is no shortage in passionate partisanship among fans when it comes to viewing an official's performance. We at the NHL have no objective other than having them get it right as much as possible.


Hershey, Pa.: Going forward, any chance the league will start to promote Ovechkin as much as Crosby?

Gary Bettman: Please don't confuse the way we promote with the way sponsors and advertisers promote their endorsers. Alex Ovechkin, like Sidney Crosby, is clearly representative of the exciting future of our game, and they both will be promoted vigorously.


Philadelphia, Pa.: How are all the teams doing financially? Are there any teams in danger of folding?

Gary Bettman: Unlike the era before the work stoppage, our franchises are healthier than ever. While there still is some room for some of our franchises to improve, all of our franchises are in better shape and none is in danger of going out of business.


McLean, Va.: Seeing as it's deadline day, what are your opinions on rental deals like the ones Mats Sundin is publically against?

Gary Bettman: Mats Sundin apparently exercised his right not to be traded because he wants to stay in Toronto. I am not a big fan of "rental deals," but I understand that teams are constantly trying to improve themselves, especially for the stretch run. I also think you will see fewer "rental" deals, since the playoff races are so competitive for so many teams and teams may be less likely to part with talent at this stage of the season.


Falls Church, Va.: We've read a lot lately about the gaps in long-term disability coverage that retired NFL players face. What provisions are in place to meet the continuing health care needs of retired NHL players, who probably face many of the same issues of debilitating injuries and chronic pain?

Gary Bettman: The National Hockey League Players' Association determines how much money of the percentage of revenues to which the players are entitled should be devoted to salaries and should be devoted to benefits, including insurance. In addition, as part of the most recent Collective Bargaining Agreement, we jointly contribute to fund a pension benefit for players whose service pre-dates the current pension plan.


McLean, Va.: Just a quick word on instant replay in the NHL. It is fantastic! The officials are correct in their calls 99 percent of the time, and when they aren't, the review is wicked fast, they get it right, and the game continues without the agonizing slowness of the NFL. Kudos to your crew and all those that make this so effective.

Gary Bettman: Thank you, and you might be interested to know we invested in High Definition equipment for this season.


Washington, D.C.: Are there any plans for further expansion? I hope that the goal would be to stabilize a number of teams or perhaps move a few who can't make it where they are, because we're fine with the number we have at the moment (or I would even argue even a few teams too many).

Gary Bettman: We have received numerous expressions of interest from places like Winnipeg, Seattle, Las Vegas and Kansas City. We do not have any plans to engage in a formal expansion process at this time. I agree with you that before ever considering expansion, we should make sure all of our current franchises are healthy. At the present time, I am not aware of any franchise that "can't make it."


Anonymous: Gary,

Ever seen a Saturday night Caps game that follows a noon Hoyas game? Not pretty.

Is there anything that can be done at the multi-purpose arenas to improve the playing surface when there are two events scheduled for the same day?

Gary Bettman: It's a tough issue. Most arenas have multiple commitments, and we do the best we can with the clubs and the arenas to try to avoid scheduling when the ice might be impacted.


Washington, D.C.: What assurances can you give us that NHL hockey will remain in the nation's capital, regardless of economic conditions?

Gary Bettman: I know that Ted Leonsis and his partners are committed to the Capitals and to Washington. There can be no doubt of that commitment in light of the Alex Ovechkin contract (and, coincidentally, today's activity at the trading deadline). This is not an issue you should spend any time worrying about. The Caps have a terrific fan base, terrific ownership and a terrific future.


Washington, D.C.: What is your opinion on getting rid of the instigator rule?

Gary Bettman: The instigator rule pre-dates me. And, in fact, something like 95 percent of the players currently playing have never played without the instigator rule at the NHL level. I am told that in a recent poll of the players, somewhere around 60 percent of the players said they were against changing the rule, and a number of players have told me that it does not impact or limit the way they play the game. I'm not really sure it's an issue.


New York: Richard Zednik's injury was shocking. More shocking was the collective reaction to it across the league, namely that the injury was so rare neck guards should not be required. My question to you is, do you believe you have an accurate assessment as to the damage that would be done to the league were a player to die, gruesomely, on the ice?

Gary Bettman: It is the players, and the National Hockey League Players' Association, who have said they believe it must be an individual player's choice -- not unlike their position on visors. What I could -- and did -- require as a parent (both face shield and neck guard) I do not have the ability to impose on the players when they are represented by a Union, and this is something they have told us they don't want.


New York: Many hockey fans in historic markets contend you are simply wrong with your formula for growing the league. They believe you are committed to developing hockey in the "Red States," to use an euphemism, to the point you will ignore much larger opportunities elsewhere, especially in Ontario. My question is, do you have anyone in your close circle of advisers who plays "Devil's Advocate" and challenges your philosophy here?

Gary Bettman: Yes -- and that's NOT my philosophy. Please don't believe everything you read about what I'm thinking! Here is what I'm thinking: If we have to relocate a franchise, or if we decide, at some point, to expand, then ALL potential locations will be considered, and we will go to the one that is the best. That someone who unsuccessfully tried to buy a club, apparently with the intent to move it in violation of its lease, suggested that we are anti-Canadian in any way or anti-Ontario in any way does not make it a fact. In fact, those assertions were fabrications.


Silver Spring, Md.: Mr. Bettman,

Thanks for the chat. It escapes me why any business would want to deny consumers their product, but that's what the NHL does by not allowing each team to visit every city, every year. Why should I want to see some teams a third or fourth time, and other teams not at all? It makes absolutely no sense to me.

Please explain why we can't just eliminate the divisions, have two conferences and see all the great players throughout the league each and every season. I can promise you I won't be buying tickets to see the same five teams over and over.

Thank you.

Gary Bettman: That is a fair question for which, based on the feedback we get from many fans, does not have an answer that satisfies everyone. There is a belief that rivalries are important and add excitement to the season -- particularly when you are familiar with your team's biggest rivals. We have been told repeatedly there are certain teams some fans have no interest in seeing -- especially if it means seeing a rival less frequently. Interestingly enough, in neither football nor baseball does every team see every other team; nevertheless, we wanted to be responsive to feelings like yours, which is why we increased the number of inter-conference games from 10 to 18 so that every team will play every other team at least once, and every team will be in every other team's building at least every other year.


Reston, Va.: What are your goals for the NHL over the next 12 months?

Gary Bettman: Before I get to the next response, I just want to add that we have enjoyed record attendance in each of the two full seasons since the world stoppage and are likely to set an all-time attendance record this season.

Now, with regard to goals over the next 12 months: To continue to make sure the game on the ice is as outstanding, entertaining and exciting as possible; to have great playoff races and exciting playoffs; to ensure that we are doing everything possible to promote the game and its players, and to make sure that our game is as accessible as possible in both traditional media and the digital space.


Washington, D.C.: Have you ever given thought to shortening the first and/or second rounds of the playoffs, or perhaps shaving a few games off the regular season? I remember when the Stanley Cup finals ended in mid-May. Going into June is way too long, especially when it comes to making decent ice in warm weather.

Gary Bettman: Because we play to 92 percent of capacity during the regular season and 99.9 percent in the playoffs, there doesn't seem to be much of a reason to reduce our schedule. I would like to end as far away from the summer as possible, but that would mean having to start earlier (perhaps in the summer) than we do now.

Interestingly, the Players' Association has proposed reducing the preseason and increasing the regular season to 84 games. That's something we're obviously going to have to look at.


Silver Spring, Md.: Is it hard to take the criticism that comes with your position? The fans were giving it to you pretty hard at the All-Star game.

Gary Bettman: As with anything in life, you take the good with the bad. I take satisfaction in doing what I think is right; I love what I do and I understand the passion of our fans.


Fredericksburg, Va.: What do you think of the rising ticket prices? For me to take my 4- and 5-year-old and wife to a decent UPPER level seat, we are looking at close to $250, including parking and food. Pay anything less and we are in the top two rows of the stadium where the kids can't enjoy the game.

Gary Bettman: Compared to five years ago, on a League-wide basis, our ticket prices are about what they were. The other major sports have seen increases in that time of between 15 and 25 percent. We probably have the lowest ticket prices of the four major sports, but understand the need to have affordable tickets -- especially for families. My understanding is that teams such as the Capitals have "Family Nights" at discounted prices with lots of goodies included.


Kalamazoo, Mich.: What do you say to the cynic that says the "New NHL" has too many whistles and not enough fights. The game of speed is interrupted by incessant whistles for rinky dink calls. I brought a friend to a game that had no idea why the whistle was being blown all the time, he was a first timer and just didn't get it. The action he sought just wasn't there. Add the trapping defense and you have a 2-1 game and just lost a potential fan.

Gary Bettman: The number of penalties being called this season is lower than it was before the work stoppage. There is better flow, more speed and more skill as a result of the change in officiating standard and the other rule changes . . . . and fighting is up 20 percent in relation to last year. I would venture to say that we have fewer whistles than we did in the days of clutching and grabbing and hooking and holding, and we have more entertaining game with more goals, more scoring chances and more lead changes. In addition, because of the increased speed and more room (less hooking and holding), you're seeing 'bigger' hits.


Gary Bettman: Time to go . . . Thank you for joining me, and for your questions. Enjoy the rest of the season.


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