Why? Because he's the single most divisive figure in NHL history, and a lightning rod of loathing for fans, media, players and their agents. Anything he says can and will be used against him in the court of public opinion; witness the way one line in his Hockey Hall of Fame speech about the lockout was parsed, and the awkward reaction to it.
So the less Gary Bettman says, perhaps the better it is for the negotiations. And yet here we have an extensive Q&A with some tough questions by Gary Lawless in the Winnipeg Free Press, in which Bettman does his usual stick-and-move responses.
We were able to glean some information from the interview, which you can read here. Among them:
1. The players aren't entitled to anything.
Remember how we said that the more Bettman speaks, the more fuel it provides to angry players? He's something that might get passed around at the next NHLPA meeting:
"The union has shown an unwillingness to negotiate. So certainly, if they're not negotiating in a meaningful way now, what would they be doing if we were playing under the old system? The entire strategy appeared to be an attempt to maintain what the union had under the expired CBA, which is something they're not entitled to."
This statement tracks back to something Donald Fehr has asked at every turn: What is the owners' motivation for the lockout, other than "other leagues did it so we can too?"
It's outrageous to paint the players' motivation as a sense of entitlement, when that's the only reasonable explanation for the owners' decision to lock them out: That in this partnership that's produced record revenues and surging popularity and arguably the most entertaining product in three decades, the owners feel they're entitled to more of their employees' current bounty.
It's also patently false that the union wanted to simply maintain what it had under the previous CBA, when from the start the players have proposed a slowing of salary growth and an increased role in revenue sharing.
One last thing on entitlement from our own Nick Cotsonika:
NHL keeps saying PA is "not entitled" to old CBA terms. Careful. PA could turn around that rhetoric and say NHL "not entitled" to cap.
— Nick Cotsonika (@cotsonika) November 19, 2012
2. The NHL shares a lot of its comparatively miniscule revenue.
Said Bettman, regarding revenue sharing:
"The fact is, we have revenue-shared, we do revenue-share and we've offered to increase revenue sharing by more than a third. Our revenue sharing as a percentage of HRR is at least comparable, if not more, than either baseball or basketball. This notion that we're not prepared to revenue-share in a meaningful way is not true."
First off, this … from John Buccigross, on the sport Bettman didn't mention:
Last year, NFL owners shared 60% of 9 billion in revenues while NHL shared 4.5% of 3.3 billion. — John Buccigross (@Buccigross) November 17, 2012
Second off, this … from Jeff Klein at the New York Times in August:
Compared with other major professional North American sports leagues, the N.H.L.'s revenue-sharing plan is less extensive. The N.F.L. shares as much as 80 percent of the owners' annual portion of revenues among its teams. In Major League Baseball, 31 percent of all teams' local revenue is subject to revenue sharing, with more money added to the pot each year through additional means. By 2013-14, the N.B.A.'s new deal will include a transfer of $196 million from the richest teams and provide the league's neediest teams up to $16 million each, up from last season's levels of $5.8 million each.
Under the N.H.L.'s current revenue-sharing plan, less than 15 percent of revenue is estimated to be shared among clubs.
Bettman has a good comparison with the NBA, whose CBA negotiation has been a template for hockey's in some ways. (Thanks, David Stern.)
But baseball? Did Bettman really just serve up that beer-filled piñata to Donald Fehr?
3. Dastardly reporters are fabricating articles to make the NHL look bad.
Over the weekend, Frank Seravalli of the Philadelphia Daily News broke a story that claimed Philadelphia Flyers owner Ed Snider was urging for an end to the lockout, a claim that Snider later denied. Rather than saying the report was inaccurate, Bettman went to the journalistic jugular:
"It was a fabrication. Ed Snider is the one who told me about the article when he found out about it and he was terribly upset. He's in Europe and it was his idea to put out a statement. Anyone who doubts the resolve of ownership is either uninformed or (being) intentionally misleading."
Calling a journalist's work a "fabrication" goes beyond questioning its accuracy and into the realm of intent to mislead.
I know Seravalli. I know his work is strong and well-sourced, and I also know he's the kind of beat reporter whose insight and access into Flyers ownership is good enough where it's completely feasible that he dug up this news.
Snider has denied it. Bettman can disagree with the work. But to draw a literal comparison between Seravalli and, say, Stephen Glass is deplorable.
4. It's time to put a moratorium on the moratorium talk.
That two-week moratorium on talks that Gary Bettman proposed? Union rhetoric! From Bettman:
"What happened is that conversation was clearly misportrayed and mischaracterized. Don called me on Tuesday to have a conversation. It wasn't a negotiation. It was nothing more than a simple conversation. In the course of that conversation he said he didn't know what to do or how to proceed. I said maybe we should take a little downtime, a couple of weeks, especially since we had just five sessions in six days and nothing was produced. In light of that fact he didn't know how to proceed, I said that as a suggestion. He gave it a long pause and then said, 'I don't think so.' I said OK. So this notion that we proposed a moratorium is nothing more than union rhetoric."
Again: Despite proposing the moratorium on talks, Bettman didn't propose a moratorium on talks. Got that?
5. He loves the players, but they're sheep.
Ian White offered perhaps the lockout's most intellectually nuanced statement recently when he called Gary Bettman "an idiot." Bettman was asked about this, and responded:
"You'll find in the course of labour disputes, there's always a lot of rhetoric. Most of it is just noise. Most of it is misinformed. There's propaganda. It's just a fact of life that you live with.
"By the way, I love the players. Nobody should think for a moment that I don't. If I didn't I wouldn't do this job. I couldn't do this job. I believe in the players."
It's interesting to see Bettman reduce the players' loathing of him to "propaganda" during a work stoppage, rather than what the lockout actually is, which is a free pass for them to rage against and disrespect the man. It's impossible to conceive that Bettman believes Zach Parise is just bloviating as a partisan when he's slamming the commissioner; if he does, that's delusion.
As for "loving the players" … well, I think he respects them. I think he understands and has reverence for the qualities that make hockey players the most grounded and dedicated athletes in pro sports. I think he knows that it's their blood on the ice for his owners' profit.
And yet, to quote every robot with an internal conflict in Sci-Fi history, "What Is Love?"
Affection and caring for another, one might define it.
When's the last time you heard Gary Bettman frame the lockout as "what's best for the players?" a.k.a. "this one goes out to the ones I love"?
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