Gary Bettman talks Roger Goodell, leaving HBO and new player safety boss

(AP Photo/The Canadian Press, Chris Young)
(AP Photo/The Canadian Press, Chris Young)

TORONTO – For an hour on Monday, NHL commissioner Gary Bettman regaled attendees of a Canadian Club of Toronto luncheon with examples of the League’s current prosperity, its potential for growth and various other sunshine and rainbows. He was relaxed, jovial and engaging, the bringer of good news. 

So, like, the complete opposite of Roger Goodell then.

Bettman counts the embattled NFL commissioner as a friend. “I know what it’s like to get intense scrutiny. It’s not always fun. But Roger’s a good man,” said Bettman.

There have been calls for Goodell’s resignation after he fumbled the investigation and punishment of Ray Rice, as well as other domestic violence incidents in the NFL.

Bettman said the NHL has tried to be proactive in educating its players about off-ice issues, from domestic violence to drug addiction.

“We’ve had education and counseling programs for more than a decade. Our security department works with the players. Our behavioral health program councilors do it with the players at least once if not more during the season. We go team by team,” he said.

On top of that, Bettman said that the NHL’s rookie orientation programs also have a domestic violence education component to them.

“I don’t think anyone that’s in the league has any illusions of what’s expected of them,” he said.

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The NHL surprised many recently when it left HBO and its “24/7” franchise, opting to bring its Winter Classic reality television series to Epix, a pay cable channel owned by Viacom.

Epix has a lower profile, by far, and far less experience in creating “24/7”-like programming. But it was willing to pay for the series and offer the NHL additional air time: Both of its outdoor games next season will get their own series of episodes building up to them.

Bettman said that the move offers a way for more NHL fans to watch the series.

“Epix is a way for us to take another leap forward on technology. Epix will be available, either on television or other means, in 40 or 50 million homes. Using the new platforms, it’s more homes than where HBO is available. We think our fans will have more access to the new generation ‘24/7’ than they had previously with HBO,” he said.

Bettman denied that the NHL’s Board of Governors pressured him to leave HBO and bring the series to a wider audience.

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Bettman said again and again on Monday that the NHL wasn't looking to expand at the moment. That goes for Canada, the U.S. and overseas.

The commissioner said the League is studying ways to bring its product to European markets, but that expansion overseas isn't in the cards yet.

“I’m not there yet. All my efforts have been focused on growing the game where it’s most important to us, in Canada and the U.S.," he said.

Bettman cited issues of travel and the different kinds of arenas they have in Europe (i.e. smaller capacities). But he didn't rule out the NHL take its product back over to Europe in some fashion.  

“Doing events, some regular season games makes more sense to me than putting teams on different continents," he said. "Particularly because in nations where hockey’s popular, there are professional leagues already. I’m sure they’re not just sitting back and waiting for us to take over.”

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Why did Bettman name Stephane Quintal as the NHL’s new senior vice president of player safety?

“I liked his audition,” Bettman said, with a laugh.

Quintal took over the department during the postseason, when Brendan Shanahan left to take over Maple Leaf Sports and Entertainment. He had a few disciplinary decisions on his watch – including a 7-game suspension handed to Matt Cooke for a hit on Tyson Barrie.

Bettman said Quintal’s hiring is a validation of the Department of Player Safety’s approach and results.

“He was at the inception of the department with Brendan. His hiring reflects with Brendan did, in terms of his vision and his creation of the department and the protocols that work,” he said.

“We interviewed a lot qualified candidates, but on balance I and Bill Daly felt this was the best way to move forward.”