NHL commissioner Bettman talks Crosby, Olympics, outdoor games
OTTAWA — Gary Bettman craved a treat Wednesday.
Not long after picking at a slice of chocolate cheesecake inside a restaurant at Scotiabank Place, the NHL commissioner witnessed the latest sweet goal scored by Penguins captain Sidney Crosby.
Bettman has no rooting interest in the Stanley Cup playoffs, of course.
Still, seeing Crosby, the global face of hockey, back in fantastical form on the ice — as opposed to missing games because of a concussion or leading a coordinated charge by moderates to end the lockout — was like a second dessert for Bettman.
“He's had tremendous success as a very young man,” Bettman said of Crosby, 25, but in his eighth NHL season.
“He's looked up to and admired by other players, certainly by his teammates and by fans. People sometimes forget how young he is and how quickly he has matured.
“That's a function of him and a credit to him and his family, and to the organization that Mario Lemieux, Ron Burkle and David Morehouse have created for the Penguins.”
Bettman and top deputy Bill Daly have opted to stay out of the limelight since the NHL lockout ended.
That probably cannot continue as these playoffs progress, though Bettman and Daly will do their best to keep the focus on competition for the Cup.
That competition may not have happened had it not been for the Penguins, who have emerged as a franchise with influence to match its high profile.
The power play
Lemieux and Burkle, the Penguins' majority co-owners, and Morehouse, their CEO, worked with Crosby and agent Pat Brisson last December to try ending the lockout.
They failed only at first glance. That effort — joined by veteran players such as Phoenix captain Shane Doan and moderate owners like Tampa Bay's Jeff Vinik — sparked resumption of stalled negotiations between the NHL and Players' Association.
The lockout ended about a month later, and Bettman received little credit from fans or players, many of whom spent the lockout ripping him and his stewardship.
However, history will show he willingly removed himself from negotiations for two days so owners and players could try tackling the labor issue by themselves.
Bettman said Wednesday he does not want to revisit the labor negotiations that kept the NHL off ice from September to January.
His league is healing in Year 1 of at least eight guaranteed under the new contract, and there has been little evidence of fan pushback from the third lockout of Bettman's tenure, which dates to Feb. 1, 1993.
Actually, his league is thriving in one of its success-story markets, Pittsburgh.
Consol Energy Center, where the Penguins will try to eliminate the Senators on Friday night, will host the 284th consecutive sellout NHL crowd in Pittsburgh. Local TV ratings for the Penguins topped the NHL and bested teams in the NBA and Major League Baseball. Youth hockey enrollment is at an all-time high, and kids who cannot skate can play ball hockey in gym classes or on city neighborhood deks because of initiatives by the Penguins and their second-year Penguins Foundation.
Pittsburgh is a market that Bettman saved, though he has consistently deferred credit to Penguins ownership and denied he imposed any preventative sanctions that scared off owners interested in relocating the franchise.
Bettman has never denied that preserving the Pittsburgh market was a priority.
That same is true now for the Coyotes and Phoenix, where the NHL has owned that club since purchasing it out of bankruptcy in 2009.
As was the case with the Penguins a decade ago, Bettman said Wednesday that rumors and speculation about the Coyotes' future only create “a distraction.”
Could Phoenix lose its club?
“We hope not,” Bettman said.
Crosby would like to help Canada defend the gold medal it won at the 2010 Olympics in Vancouver. Center Evgeni Malkin would love to stop him and lead Russia to gold at the 2014 Winter Games in Sochi, Russia.
Neither Crosby nor Malkin, both under contract to the Penguins for next season, is sure he will be allowed at the Games next February.
NHL players have participated in the Winter Olympics since 1998, but there is no agreement in place for that to continue. Negotiations with the International Olympic Committee are ongoing, Daly said.
“We need to know what we're doing with the Olympics next year to issue our schedule, so it's important that we make a decision one way or the other by the time we normally release our schedule,” Daly said, referring to the end of June.
The NHL will play under a new alignment next season, with four divisions and an unbalanced schedule marking significant changes from the last time an 82-game campaign was staged.
Realignment is not the only newness coming to the NHL.
The outdoor series
The Winter Classic will have company.
The New Year's Day outdoor game between Detroit and Toronto — a first-time Canadian participant — will serve as the start for a series of similar contests.
Other outdoor games are scheduled for Yankee Stadium, Dodger Stadium and Vancouver's BC Place.
The Penguins played in the original Winter Classic in 2008 and hosted Washington at Heinz Field for the 2011 outdoor game.
They will play at Chicago's Soldier Field against the Blackhawks on March 1.
The NHL asked the Penguins to participate, Morehouse said.
“We're glad to help, too, because we believe in doing things that our fans love — and, as we've seen in Pittsburgh twice, once when we had it here, fans love the outdoor game and everything that goes with it.
“We like the idea of giving other cities a chance to have what we had at Heinz Field. We'd like the chance to do that again, as well.”
Bettman echoed Morehouse's statements and paid a particular compliment to the Penguins, who turned their 2011 Classic into a Downtown winter carnival.
“The reason we decided to do more was our observation of the in-market experience by the people who actually attend, and making this an experience more people can be a part of,” Bettman said.
“You know what it was like in Pittsburgh. It was great.”