On Monday, ESPN.com regular contributor Terry Frei, also of The Denver Post, visited the National Hockey League offices in New York for an exclusive interview with Commissioner Gary Bettman. Below is an edited transcript:
TF: Does the Forbes Magazine report undercut you on the trust issue?
Bettman: The Forbes magazine article is not based on the facts. They did not have access to the underlying financial material that they would have needed to opine, as they did. It probably makes good rhetoric in some quarters, but we know what the losses are and we know that (the Levitt Report) and the 2,000 hours that they spent, including with team auditors, is the accurate picture of our economic condition. Other than its rhetoric value for some, it's not something we have concern about and it's nothing we intend to focus on.
TF: The NHLPA says it's waiting for the league. You've said, essentially, don't hold your breath. Is this a childish staredown?
Bettman: No! The fact of the matter is that the union has told us they have no intention of negotiating over the types of solutions we have proposed. We know of no other way to address in a significant, meaningful and reliable way the problems we have, to put this league on the right economic footing. We said that whenever you have something you want to talk about, perhaps you can enlighten us, give us a call and we'll be happy to join you at any meeting. But we have nothing new to add at this point.
TF: But how specifically does that have to be spelled out in any new approach they make?
Bettman: There are no preconditions to us meeting. We have at this point -- based on their response to us -- we have nothing that they are prepared to talk to us about, so if they have something they want to talk about, all they have to do is ask and we'll be there ... If they want to talk, we'll be happy to talk, but based on their response to what we told them we need, they told us they have no interest in talking those things. So we haven't seen any reason to ask for a meeting. But we've told them we'll meet anytime, anyplace.
TF: To put it another way, do they have to say they'll talk about a salary cap?
Bettman: No, if they want to talk, we'll be happy to talk. But in response to what we've told them we need, they've said they have no interest in talking. So we haven't seen any reason to ask for a meeting.
TF: Perhaps it's oversimplistic to say lock yourself in a room and get it done, but why can't it be done?
Bettman: Because we are talking about different things that don't bear any relationship to each other. The union is talking about modifying an existing system, which is a system that we believe to a certainty is fatally flawed. The system doesn't work, and we don't believe that there's any way you can rectify the problems of this system. We need a new system. We've proposed
six, and the union refuses to negotiate over any of them ... It's not about compromise for the sake of compromise. It's about making the right deal.
I got asked in a chat session, "Well, if your average salary figure is 1.3 million and they want to keep the 1.8, why can't you split it in the middle?" The answer is we have no interest in continuing to bleed lots and lots of money. We want a solution that will enable all of our franchises to be viable and competitive ... and with affordable ticket prices. It's not about locking yourself in the room. We are, to quote myself, speaking two different languages. That's where we find ourselves.
TF: Why do you have to be speaking the same language to be locked in a room and negotiate?
Bettman: The union turned a deaf ear (to the NHL's invitations to negotiate since 1999). We've been at this process since 1999, so the fact that we haven't met for two months, I don't find remarkable. They've refused to address the problems for five and a half years. And couple that with something you can either agree with or disagree with, but we believe this is a union that bargains by confrontation. In 1992, striking on the eve of the playoffs. In '94, refusing to negotiate in a meaningful way until the season was about to be canceled. So this isn't, based on the union clock, a time for meaningful negotiation -- which is evidenced by the fact that the offer they made on Sept. 9 was a watered-down version of one they had made 15 months ago. They basically made one offer a year ago in June, and the only time they varied from it was to make it worse. It's a framework that I believe wouldn't work, and I don't think they think it would work because of their first reaction when they proposed it in June 2003. I said, 'I don't believe
this will work, but if you're prepared to guarantee the results that you have outlined here, your estimates, we have something to talk about.' Their response was, 'We're not guaranteeing anything.' I took that to mean they believed or knew it wasn't going to work.
Why are you smiling?
TF: Well, why can't you have Colin Powell, who has nothing to do now, or ...
Bettman: It's not about mediating. Mediation is when the sides don't understand each other. We understand each other fully. They want to maintain the current system, which they contend is a free market, which it's not. We want to make them partners, we want to share in the revenues, as (the revenues) currently are and as they grow, and we want to have a predictable, enforceable relationship between revenue and expenses. That's what happens in collective bargaining, in virtually every other collective bargaining relationship on the face of the earth.
Look at what happened with Delta Airlines in the last week! The pilots reduced their salaries by 30 percent and agreed to no raises for five years to save the company a billion dollars a year because they knew the airline wasn't healthy! Now, I'm not drawing the parallel between Delta Airlines' economics and ours. Don't think I'm suggesting that, and I'm not even comparing our players to airline pilots. The point I'm making is that in collective bargaining, the employer and employee, management and union, negotiate over what is the fair share of the pie for the members of the union. And that's something this union refuses to do. It's not about the difference between 1.3 and 1.8, it's about a difference between whether you play in daytime or nighttime.
I've had a car wreck, OK? I want to negotiate over a new car and they want to sell me a new set of tires for the one that was wrecked. ... Why should we talk about what brand of tires we want! The car's wrecked! I'm not making light of it. I can sense your frustration, so I'm trying to reach for terms that lay this out.
Traditional negotiations are you go to your employer, how much are you going to pay me, what are the perks, how do I get to fly, how much vacation time. You're talking about the same things! Well, they're talking about what kind of minimalistic tax there will be on payroll, and we're talking about what share of 2.1 billion dollars are we going to give the players. Is it a billion, is it a billion fifty, is it 950 million? Those are two different things.
TF: The reaction I get from people and fans is, "Pox on both houses, spare me the rhetoric, just get it done."
Bettman: As a fan, I feel the frustration of not playing. But we have to look at it in a different context. It's not when we play, it's under what terms are we going to play. I hate when I say this, not because I say it, but because the fact is so bad, it makes me feel uncomfortable: We lose less money by not playing. ... We had a lot of teams that staggered to the finish line. This is our opportunity to focus on the future, with a new opportunity to get it right. To me, the last three years were more difficult than what we're doing now, because we know where we have to get. We know how to fix the problems, we just need a willing partner. It's important that the union understands that we're serious.
TF: You've been careful about not putting out drop-dead deadlines.
Bettman: That's because it's not about the deadline for getting the deal done, it's about the deal.
TF: But how soon would you have to settle to save the season?
Bettman: I'm not sure because we have to decide how many games we need, and that's not a discussion we've had. At the time we make a deal, we'll sit
with the union, and we'll sit and decide where do we need to go. Do we have enough? If not, we'll come back next year.
TF: But you must have pondered this.
Bettman: It's not something we're focused on, it's not something we have made any determination on, and it's not something I have instructed my scheduling guy, Steve Hatze Petros, to do. It's not the burning issue. The burning issue is the deal. You know what? If we're getting into serious negotiations, and we're negotiating now over what the percentage of the gross is, at that point, I'm going to make the call to Hatze Petros and say, "OK, what do we got, how would it work, and he'll start focusing on it." But I haven't asked him to spin his wheels right now, because that's not the issue. All of those things can fall into place once we get through the threshold issue. I tell you, you can look in my eye, we don't have a hidden drop-dead date. As an aside, the union, when you go through the history I gave you, likes to deadline hunt. I assume they have a deadline in their own minds, and that's what they're working off of. I don't know what it is, I haven't asked, because I'm not concerned with the deadline.
TF: Does this have to be signed, sealed, delivered, with T's crossed and I's dotted before you get ready to play, or play?
Bettman: This is too complicated a deal at too critical a point to do anything but make sure we've got it buttoned down and done right. But all of which I think can be done expeditiously. It doesn't have to take months.
TF: You have a disparate group of owners...
Bettman: Actually I don't. It depends on what way you're referring to them. On this issue, of getting a healthy league and a new system, they're not disparate at all. They are completely unified, and there is no exception to that.
TF: Then why the cone of silence and gag order?
Bettman: That's a misnomer. I didn't impose the cone of silence, I only enforce what they wanted done. They want to make sure the message is clear. We had an incident (with Atlanta part-owner Steve Belkin), where someone spoke, where they didn't know what they were talking about. He was a new owner, (and) said something that was out of whole cloth, something that had never been discussed, either at a board meeting, and he had never been to one, and it had never been discussed with me privately. It was one guy thinking out loud. The owners, in order to make this process go as quickly as possible, want to make sure that there was no confusion. They voted in the gag order. It's a bylaw, actually. I'm charged with enforcing it, but it's their rule, not mine.
TF: But speaking of that specific case, have you pondered impasse and replacement players?
Bettman: The answer to that is we know what our legal rights are. We know in that regard that that's an option. It's not something we have given any consideration to. We don't have a plan to do it. Obviously, as I said, at some point, it becomes an option, but then you have to plan for it and deal with it. Our preference and our present focus exclusively is on making a deal with the union.
TF: At what point could it be an option?
Bettman: We haven't considered the timetable. ... The thing that would be unforgivable is that if we went through this and didn't fix it. Then our fans would have the right to be unhappy with us. But our fans really understand this game and are really passionate about this game and they want it done the right way.
TF: Does (the negotiation process involve) a bit of recognition of the NHL's proud niche status?
Bettman: You're not looking at it in the universal context. NFL, NBA, they have systems that work. Maybe if we had systems like that and we had teams that were healthy and more competitive, we would do better in areas that we get criticized for. I think we've been a victim of our economic system. This sport, under the most difficult of circumstances, in the last 12 years has gone from $430 million to $2.1 billion ... We have grown phenomenally under economic duress, so give us a system that makes us stronger, like some of the sports, and the best is yet to come.
TF: How are you holding up to being the lightning rod?
Bettman: How do I seem to you? Do I seem anything but relaxed and focused? We are very comfortable with what our mandate is and what we have to do to make this thing work. That's why I can sit here and feel comfortable and look completely relaxed. Do I look frazzled or haggard? I'm fine.
TF: But we know that in this sport sometimes, it's held against you if you didn't grow up saying, "Or-gan-eye-zation" ...
Bettman: So what's your excuse?
TF: I was raised in Oregon.
Bettman: Know what? The fact of the matter is that the people here, or our Toronto office or our Montreal office, no matter what they've done before they got to this station in life, love this game, or they wouldn't be here and they wouldn't be part of this organization, and nobody more so than me. I have devoted virtually all of my waking hours for the last 12 years to this game, every aspect of it. Nobody can be more passionate about this game than I am. People can say whatever they want about me, but nobody can doubt my commitment to this game, because I've demonstrated it through the hard work and commitment to this game.
TF: So can you win over the skeptics who don't believe that?
Bettman: It's not about me. It's not about me winning people over. It's about us doing the right things for this game. People will love us or hate us, but we will at least know we're doing the right thing.
TF: Is this lockout and settlement going to be the defining element of your tenure?
Bettman: I don't view things in those terms. This league, this game is at a critical juncture. If we don't fix it the right way, this game will not survive in any form that people will want to be associated with. This game will struggle and bleed to death unless we do the things that we've been talking about doing.
TF: You aren't offering any olive branches here. Does this represent a hardening of your position?
Bettman: The position we're in and what we need to do is the same as it was in 1999. We haven't hardened ... By the way, and I want to be clear about this. Our players are the best, on and off the ice. We don't begrudge them anything they got under the old CBA. We made the deal, they did great, and that's nobody's fault. But once the agreement expired, we were under no obligation to keep sustaining the losses, and that's what this is about.
TF: Do you have enough owners who don't want to play at all this season to prevent a settlement?
Bettman: It's not about owners wanting to play this year or not wanting to play this year. Again, you're looking at a framework we're not looking at. They're prepared to do whatever needs to be done to get it fixed. If I can fix it tomorrow, everybody would be happy to play. If we can't get it fixed now, everybody's prepared to deal with that as well.
TF: If there's no hockey this season, are you back to Square One?
Bettman: When you asked me about impasse and unilateral implementation, I said obviously from a legal standpoint, that's an option. So is continuing
not to play. At the appropriate point in time, when we have to make decisions, we'll decide what our best strategy is ... I'm not focused on a timetable or what comes after whenever. We're focused on what do we have to do to make the deal. My own preference is to make the deal as soon as possible. I would have liked to have made it yesterday, I would liked to have made it last summer, I would have liked to have made it a year and a half ago.
TF: Who makes the next call?
Bettman: We hear speculation that the union is getting ready to make another offer. If that's true, hopefully it will be a meaningful offer, and hopefully it gets out of the realm and framework that they have been fixated on. We're hoping it will be a sensible offer that takes us to a point where they're actually trying to address the problems.
TF: Why not accept a luxury tax, if it's so punitive as to act like a salary cap?
Bettman: No one knows how well a luxury tax will or won't work. It's experimental. It's unpredictable. We don't have the luxury of going any further with a system that doesn't work. Two, it doesn't necessarily eliminate the disparities that make teams more competitive, or give us the opportunity to have our product stronger across 30 markets. Three, it doesn't deal with the ripple effect. If one team pays a player a certain level, another team, even if his team doesn't want to be a luxury tax payer, is going to hear a player say, "I want to be the same." The comparability issue is not addressed. I don't believe luxury taxes work. That's why I hope when the union comes back with its proposal, it moves to a new venue in terms of its system and comes to one that will work, and work in the right way. See, nobody has ever said in a meaningful way what's wrong with a partnership, other than they ideologically don't like it. A partnership works for everybody and is fair for everybody.
TF: Is this season toast?
Bettman: Hope not. Hope not. I'm getting tired of watching reruns of our games. I hope not. I hope the union will ultimately step up and do what everyone else acknowledges needs to be done.
Terry Frei is a regular contributor to ESPN.com. He is the author of the recently published "Third Down and a War to Go," and "Horns, Hogs, and Nixon Coming."