VANCOUVER — Gary Bettman feels the NHL has never been healthier or stronger, but the commissioner thinks the league needs to continue to evolve to keep up with young fans.
Bettman said a lot has changed since he took over the role 26 years ago.
“When I started on this journey in 1993, no team had a website, the iPhone was a dozen years from being on the market,” he said during a question-and-answer session Friday before the NHL draft.
Technology’s Place in Hockey
“What we had to do as a league was change, we had to embrace technology and we have to be responsive to what our younger fans want.”
Some may balk at new ideas like puck and player tracking, eSports and expanding video review, but each has its place, Bettman said.
Technology can help officials make the right calls in an increasingly fast-paced game and help grow the NHL’s audience, he added.
“We’re not trying to force you to disrupt or consume sports differently,” he said. “We want to use the opportunity of technology to bring younger people into the game as well.”
Addition of Seattle
The league also is growing its fan base by adding another team in Seattle, starting in the 2021-2022 season. While excitement about the new addition is high, the NHL isn’t looking to expand any further, Bettman said.
Seattle’s currently un-named franchise will be a “natural geographic rival” for the Vancouver Canucks, Bettman told the hometown crowd.
But hockey fans shouldn’t be worried that the addition of a new team will dilute the league’s talent pool because there are more talented players in the league today than ever before, he said.
“The players that are coming into the game now are bigger, faster, more skilled than we’ve ever seen in our history,” Bettman said. “The game is being played by extraordinary players with extraordinary skill.”
Maintaining competitive balance is important because it’s what sets the NHL apart from other sporting leagues, the commissioner said.
“When you watch our game, particularly over the past 15 years, it’s hard to win. Every team can compete,” he said, noting that this year’s Stanley Cup champions, the St. Louis Blues, were at the bottom of the standings at the beginning of January.
“What we want our fans to believe, no matter where you are, it’s not a fantasy, your team at the beginning of every season has a chance to win.”
2022 Winter Olympics
One issue that Bettman is concerned with, however, is having NHL players compete at the Winter Olympics.
The players did not go to the 2018 Pyeongchang Olympics and there is no deal in place for Beijing 2022.
He said stopping the season in February simply isn’t fair to the league.
“It’s not that I’m not a fan of the Olympics. I’m not a fan of disrupting our season,” he said, noting that the cost of sending and insuring athletes costs the league around US$20 million.
“We’re not going to pay for the privilege of shutting down.”
Having players travel the world to play in non-NHL games can also cause imbalances between teams, with some losing several players to injury while others go relatively unscathed, Bettman added.
“The disruption of the season is a real concern for the competitive integrity every night,” he said.
Still, the commissioner knows that playing in the Olympics is important to many NHL athletes. The issue is expected to be discussed in upcoming negotiations over the league’s collective bargaining agreement. The current CBA could be terminated the fall of 2020.
Bettman said he won’t be “looking for a fight” heading into the talks, but noted that both sides will need to decide what they can and can’t live with.
“People don’t want to hear about work stoppages. They want to see the game played without interruptions,” he said.
Gemma Karstens-Smith, The Canadian Press