NHL Commissioner Gary Bettman visited Nashville for the Predators/Hurricanes game on Feb. 5. NashvillePredators.com met up with the Commissioner during his visit and got his thoughts on the state of the Predators franchise, the growth of hockey in the Nashville area, and other topics from around the league.
NashvillePredators.com: Can you talk about the state of the Predators franchise?
I'm encouraged by what I see. I believe that David Freeman's ownership of the club bodes well, extremely well for the future of this franchise in Nashville.
NP.com: How much of an impact do you think the local ownership group can have on this franchise?
Commissioner: I think that this franchise, having somebody from this community to take the laboring or to get more involved with the fans and the business community is a plus. Craig Leopold was a great owner, but he felt he took the franchise as far as he could.
NP.com: From an outsider's perspective how has the growth of this franchise been?
Commissioner: I've seen a team in a non-traditional market become traditional and mainstream as the fan base continued – and still continues – to grow and as people have had an opportunity to see the game and fall in love with it.
NP.com: How much has the team's youth hockey initiatives helped?
Commissioner: Kids participating in youth hockey is absolutely huge for the future of the game. Nashville, 10 years ago there were, I think, five high school hockey teams, now there are 30. The number of children playing organized hockey has increased more than five-fold. These are our future fans of the league in general and of this team specifically. They are the ones who are going to take their kids to Predators games 20 years from now.
NP.com: Revenue sharing is a hot topic here with the Predators. How extensive is the league's revenue sharing plan?
Commissioner: It's quite extensive. It's in excess of $100 million dollars.
NP.com: How important is revenue sharing to league-wide health?
Commissioner: I think the purpose of revenue sharing is to complement the rest of the system with the salary cap and the partnership with the players. This is an element to the program that helps to ensure that all clubs can be competitive.
NP.com: How important is the NHL Network to the league's growth plan?
Commissioner: We think the NHL Network is terrific. It's been well received by the critics and by those who watch it. It's now available in around 80 million homes. We think it's going to be a huge plus for us. It gives you all things hockey all the time, so you're learning the game. Or if you're already a big fan it gives you an opportunity to get as much hockey as you want.
NP.com: How important is High-Definition TV to the league's growth?
Commissioner: I think High-Definition television will help break the perception that the game in person doesn't translate to TV as well as the in-person experience. Well, that may be a function of the fact that the in-person experience is the best and that tradition television, conventional television, analog television, even digital television hasn’t been able to capture the speed and the excitement of our game. Hi-Def bridges that gap in three ways. One, digital sound so you hear the collisions, you hear the skates cutting through the ice, you hear the sticks making contact with each other or with the puck. You have clarity, so if you're intent upon seeing the puck you can do it better than ever before. And the wide aspect ratio, which is probably the most important part of what hi-definition television brings you, is going to enhance people following the game. By wide aspect ratio, instead of viewing the game four-by-three, you get it 16-by-nine, so you are seeing more of our game, more of what's happening, and you get to see plays develop.
NP.com: The league revamped the nhl.com network this summer. How has that helped the league?
Commissioner: It ensures that every club website has the best practices, the best technology, but preserves local content. It's pivotal in this tech savvy age. And since we have the most tech savvy fans, this is an opportunity for fans to connect to the game when they want and get what they want. And make sure they have whatever hockey experience they want.
NP.com: The league also opened a store in Manhattan this season. What impact have you seen from that?
Commissioner: It's been a huge success. Visitors from all around the world come through the store. It's got great product and it gives us tremendous branding. It helps teams like Nashville in terms of extending and strengthening the league brand.
NP.com: This season has been heavily defined by the parity in the league, particularly of note for the fans here in Nashville, in the Western Conference. Is parity a good thing?
Commissioner: If you look at the playoff races right now, I don't think there's a league – and not just the NHL, but the other sports leagues, too – that's ever seen competitive balance this intense. There might be a couple of teams that miss the playoffs by only one or two points this year. Every game throughout the season matters; tonight's game as well as games in October, November, as well as all remaining games. And as we've seen in the past, including just a few years ago with a number eight seed making the Cup Finals, once you get in (to the playoffs) anything can happen. As you look at the standings, with the exception of probably two teams, everyone still has a shot at the playoffs this year.
NP.com: There were several on-ice rules which were introduced at the start of the 2005-06 season. How successful have those been?
Commissioner: The flow of the game is better. There are more scoring chances. There's more speed. Goal scoring is up. It's down a little from last year, but that's more attributable to power-plays. There were some who suggested when the changes were made, you were going to get a parade to the penalty box. In the first year we were averaging about 13 penalties a game. Last season we averaged about 11 penalties a game. This year we're averaging about nine penalties a game, which is actually less penalties per game than what we were averaging in '03-04. It's not because we told the officials to relax the standard. To the contrary; we're adhering to the standard. The players and the coaches have done a great job adjusting. But you're getting less power-plays.
NP.com: Are there any thoughts of additional rules changes?
Commissioner: I think we're going to look at what can be done to reduce the size of goaltender equipment.
NP.com: Much has been made of the current league schedule. Are there going to be any changes made for next season?
Commissioner: The board voted at the end of November to increase the amount of inter-conference play by almost double from 10 games a season to 18. Every team will play every team in the other conference at least once a season, rotating home and away each year, and for three clubs there will be a home-and-home out of conference series. This will give the fans here in Nashville an opportunity to see the Eastern teams more frequently.
NP.com: The Winter Classic outdoor game drew a lot of attention. Is the league looking at hosting more events like that in the future?
Commissioner: We had a great time. It was a great event for us. It gave us the discussion of the day on New Year's Day, which used to be devoted to College Bowls. I think we were the talk of the town and for good reason. It was a great event and it was a lot of fun. So we will probably do more. How many? When? Where? We're not anywhere close to making those decisions. And, as importantly, we don't want to over do it. We want to keep it special.
NP.com: Similarly, the league opened this season with a pair of regular season games in Europe. How important is the European market to the league's long-term success and will the league play any games in Europe in the future?
Commissioner: We think that our fans get excited about the big events and next season we're going to open in Europe with four games, two in Prague and two in Stockholm. Around a third of our players come from outside North America. They're some of the best players the world and in our league. This is an opportunity for the fans in those countries to see their players playing in our games. The European market is important in so far as there's tremendous interest in the game in Europe and there are a lot of players who get developed there.