NHL Commissioner Gary Bettman met some of the top leaders in the Canadian business community at The Business Lecture Series presented by the Speakers Forum at The National Club in Toronto, a downtown institution founded in 1874. Bettman met the hockey issues of the day head-on in a 20-minute speech that was followed by 20 minutes of interaction with the audience.
In each forum, he said the NHL is a vibrant business, projected to experience real economic growth somewhere in the five percent range this season. Bettman also acknowledged the NHL is not immune to the challenges affecting the global economic climate.
"This will be our fourth consecutive year of record revenue growth and, because our attendance historically increases month by month, 2008-09 also likely will be our fourth consecutive season of record attendance," Bettman said. "That said, we are, of course, faced with challenges and I focus on them every moment of every day. I see the challenges and I am extremely confident they can be overcome through hard work, through the commitment of my office and the Board of Governors to every one of our franchises in every one of our markets and through the strength of the economic system that governs the League’s relationship with the players."
The Business Lecture Series regularly brings together close to 200 of the top names in the Canadian business community to gather in one place to hear from a newsmaker, as well as to be heard in question-and-answer sessions. Past speakers in the series include former United States Presidents Jimmy Carter, Gerald Ford and Ronald Reagan, broadcaster Walter Cronkite and Rev. Jesse Jackson, among others in a series that began in 1979.
Bettman is an in-demand speaker, especially in the hockey-crazed province of Ontario, so it was not surprising to see the ornate main dining room of the National Club -- with its oil paintings of the six founders and a series of nine chandeliers to lend even more tradition to the event -- filling up early in anticipation of Bettman's speech.
Representatives from Bridgestone, Bank of Montreal and other top-flight city-based businesses were on hand, as were representatives of such media conglomerates as the Globe & Mail and CBC. Executives and personalities from the hockey world -- Richard Peddie, CEO of Maple Leafs Sports and Entertainment, Toronto GM Brian Burke
and Hockey Night in Canada host Don Cherry
-- also were in attendance.
In his speech, Bettman discussed the appeal of the Stanley Cup and how all that it represents sets the loftiest standards for today's custodians of the League.
"It is truly remarkable that an ancient barrel of sterling silver, which cannot speak, still communicates so much and so well," he said. "It tells you, simply, who won -- which is the essence of why our players and our teams put themselves through so much to win it.
"Our Cup talks hockey and nothing else. Our Cup is 116 years old. It has seen worldwide crises before and it will see them again. It has endured them all. It is tougher than time. It is resilient. It is the symbol of all things strong and good in our sport." -- Gary Bettman
"The champion’s panel on the Cup will make no mention of the state of the economy in the relevant season. That panel on the Cup will pay no attention to whether the salary cap went up or down, whether the Union re-opened the Collective Bargaining Agreement or it decided not to, whether one team sold all its tickets while another team did not, whether television ratings rose or fell, whether banks failed, whether people lost their jobs or their savings or their homes.
"Our Cup talks hockey and nothing else. Our Cup is 116 years old. It has seen worldwide crises before and it will see them again. It has endured them all. It is tougher than time. It is resilient. It is the symbol of all things strong and good in our sport.
"It is our job as a League to maintain the standards for our game that are symbolized by the Cup, and I can assure you that everyone at the National Hockey League directs every possible bit of energy, every minute of every day, to that pursuit."
Bettman admitted the task of safeguarding the standards of the game are more difficult today than in the recent past, a point he drove home with blunt answers during the post-speech give and take.
"Despite the fact the economy has dramatically slowed down and will continue to slow down and that unemployment will reach levels that none of us have seen in our lifetime, some people are still spending money," Bettman said. "(Some) businesses still continue to advertise and our demographic, as far as sponsor reach, is as strong as any brand can deliver."
Bettman pointed out that the League has forged eight new sponsorship deals since the economic downturn struck and that ticket sales remain strong. He also said the League's economic system helps the NHL and the players navigate these troubled economic times.
"There is a fixed relationship between our revenues and our single biggest cost, player salaries," Bettman said. "As revenues go up, the players make more money and the cap goes up. If revenues flatten out, so will salaries that the players get. And, if revenues decline, so will what we pay to the players."
Bettman's presentation received sustained applause at the end, as well as a thumbs-up from Jim F. Keating, the president and CEO of the Speakers Forum.
"I thought he covered all the bases," Keating said. "He is certainly a very forceful and very powerful speaker and I think he also thrives in the Q&A session.
"While the present and the future of our game are bright, indeed, our daily focus is on raising the bar ever higher. When we pass the torch – and our Cup – to the next generation, the game must be stronger and more vibrant than ever. We know that what we did yesterday, or do today, must be even better tomorrow." -- Gary Bettman
"I felt the speech was excellent, especially dealing with the financial part, which I know our business audience was very interested in. Then, there were the other issues that came up such as the Europe part, the fighting issue and so forth. He's a straight shooter and he answered every question."
It would be an understatement to say that Bettman was grilled by the attendees after the formal speech. Yet, every query was met head-on, painting a snapshot of where the League stands today.
Bettman dismissed notions of expansion or contraction, pledging full allegiance to current franchises and highlighting the League's ability to work with "troubled" franchises in the past.
The commissioner addressed fighting in the NHL, a subject that has become a national issue in Canada in the past month, reiterating that fighting remains part of the NHL fabric but will be looked at closely by the League's General Managers and Competition Committee in the coming months.
Bettman discussed the NHL's increasing presence in Europe, allowing that the League will continue to play regular-season games in European markets, but has no plans to expand to Europe.
He said the NHL is undecided if it would continue to send its players to the Olympics after the 2010 Winter Olympics a year from now in Vancouver.
The addition of another team in southern Ontario was, as expected, a big topic of conversation in the Toronto business community. It was broached in several questions to Bettman.
"If you are going to put another team anywhere else, we either need to relocate, which we are not planning to do, or we need to be expanding, which we are not planning to do," Bettman said.
While short-term and long-term issues remain, Tuesday's presentation remained about what the NHL is -- and what it can be.
"While the present and the future of our game are bright, indeed, our daily focus is on raising the bar ever higher," Bettman said in his formal remarks. "When we pass the torch – and our Cup – to the next generation, the game must be stronger and more vibrant than ever. We know that what we did yesterday, or do today, must be even better tomorrow."