DETROIT — Jackets off, ties loosened a little, NHL commissioner Gary Bettman and deputy commissioner Bill Daly sat in a spare suite Thursday night at Joe Louis Arena.
Bettman said it was too early to judge the enforcement and effect of the new rule outlawing blindside hits to the head, while defending the physical nature of hockey and arguing concussions are not on the rise.
He dismissed the idea of contraction, which David Stern, his NBA counterpart and mentor, has said will be on the table as the NBA negotiates its next collective bargaining agreement with its players’ union.
He wondered why there was so much interest in the NHL’s upcoming round of collective bargaining – even though the last round led to a lockout and the cancellation of the 2004-05 season – and said he was just starting to get to know Donald Fehr, the longtime baseball labor leader poised to become executive director of the NHL Players’ Association.
And he provided an interesting nugget: The Minnesota Wild fan grabbed by Vancouver Canucks forward Rick Rypien(notes) last week has not accepted an invitation to dinner and a game – and has not responded to repeated attempts to reach him.
Here are the highlights from the Q&A session:
Y! Sports: In regard to the rule banning blindside hits to the head, what do the early returns tell you about players’ attitudes and officials’ enforcement?
Bettman: I think it’s still too early. I do think we are starting to see a change in attitude. It’s an adjustment for the players, it’s an adjustment for the officials, and if anyone expected that the rule would be consistently and appropriately enforced this early into the season, I think they weren’t being realistic. We’re going to continue to monitor it, it’s going to continue to evolve, and we think it will get to the place that we expect it to be, which is consistent enforcement when there are these types of plays and hopefully the elimination of them.
Y! Sports: In terms of an adjustment period, is there a parallel to when new rules on interference were instituted after the lockout?
Bettman: I’m not sure I would equate the two, because this was directed at one type of play that evolved into the game that we wanted to focus on. We made a whole host of change to the game itself (after the lockout). But I do think it’s fair to say that the game the first year back is not what the game looks like today. I was consistently pleased and amazed with how quickly everybody adjusted, but I think it probably took two seasons of all those changes to get the game to the place that we thought it would be at when we envisioned the changes.
Y! Sports: Former NHL referee Kerry Fraser and some concussions experts have called for a total ban on hits to the head. How do you respond to those who say the new rule doesn’t go far enough?
Bettman: That’s easy for people to say, and if somebody’s looking to criticize the game or sell books, I suppose they can say that. But the fact is, if you understand our game and the way it’s played, unless you’re preparing to fundamentally change the game and the amount of contact in the game, you just can’t simply say there’s no contact to the head.
Y! Sports: Is the concussion issue a byproduct of making the game faster?
Bettman: The crazy thing is, if you remember, when we made the rule changes, people were complaining that we took the physicality out of the game, and nothing could be further from the truth. … We’re averaging about 42 hits a game, which is about 50-some-odd thousand in the course of the season. … I can’t imagine there are fewer if we’re doing that many. But what’s also interesting about that is, as a proportion of 50-plus thousand hits, not very many of them are the troublesome hits. You’re talking less than a fraction of one percent.
Daly: Actually, hitting is up since the lockout. The incidents of concussions really hasn’t changed since 2001, I believe. … You’re seeing man-games lost way down, which means you’re getting more diagnosis of concussions and more conservative treatment. So actually, on an apples to apples basis, it may be that they’re down based on where we used to be, just because the reporting is good, the treatment is good.
Y! Sports: Have you found a pattern to all the concussions this season? Some are from illegal or borderline hits. Some are from fights. One was from a goalie fainting and hitting his head on the ice.
Bettman: Some are a perfectly legal play and a guy banging his head. This is a fast, physical game and unless you’re going to take contact out of the game, there are going to be injuries.
Daly: As long as you’re playing hockey and it’s hockey, you’re going to have concussions. So there’s nothing you can do to eliminate concussions. You can make it as safe as you can for the players.
Y! Sports: Are you concerned by some of the early attendance figures, particularly the 6,706 on Oct. 21 in Glendale, Arizona? The league-run Coyotes lost to the Los Angeles Kings, 4-2.
Daly: With so much uncertainty surrounding the franchise, it’s unfair to test the market on the basis of where that franchise exists now. Obviously if we transition to new ownership and secure the franchise long-term in Phoenix, I think you’ll see a significant uptick in how the fans respond to the club. I will say we’re light years better than where we were last year at this time in terms of how the fans have responded to the club.
Y! Sports: Would you consider putting contraction on the bargaining table as Stern has?
Bettman: That’s not something we’re interested in exploring. We don’t think it’s necessary in our case. We don’t think it’s appropriate in our case. … What another league does is what that league decides is in its best interest.
Y! Sports: Despite the struggles in some cities, why have you remained so steadfast in supporting all of your markets?
Bettman: All of our franchises are capable of doing well, and at one time or another, they all have. When a franchise is – or a couple of franchises are – in trouble, we can’t paint it with one broad brush. The fact is, where we are in Phoenix is unique to Phoenix. To judge Phoenix … If and when there’s a new owner – and we hope there will be, as Bill discussed – I don’t think that will look anything like what you’ve seen for the last two years. So I don’t see any reason for us to be discussing contracting. And frankly, to segue, I don’t see any reason why anybody who covers our game is focused at all on collective bargaining. I mean, we’re starting to get those questions. There are three other leagues that go before we do. (Laugh) We’ve got two years. Please.
Y! Sports: To segue, how much have you interacted with Fehr? Have you begun building a business relationship?
Bettman: Periodically over the last few months, we’ve chatted – really informally. I think he is probably waiting and would be more comfortable till the point in time where he’s officially the executive director. And from our standpoint, we really need for the union to tell us officially who we’re going to be dealing with.
Y! Sports: Have you discussed any concrete business yet with Fehr?
Y! Sports: Have you begun negotiating a new TV contract?
Bettman: There’s a point in time where we begin an official and exclusive negotiating period with one of our two broadcasters, and at that point in time we’ll begin discussions.
Y! Sports: Red Wings owner Mike Ilitch is in negotiations to buy the NBA’s Detroit Pistons. What does that mean for the Wings? Will they continue to play at Joe Louis Arena? Will they move to the Palace of Auburn Hills, either temporarily or permanently? Will the Pistons and Wings play in a new arena in downtown Detroit?
Bettman: At this stage, that’s not really appropriate for me to comment on. To the extent that that’s anything that’s being discussed publicly, you should really talk to the Ilitches and the Red Wings. It’s really not for me to talk about – now.
Y! Sports: Are you indeed going to have dinner with James Engquist, the 28-year-old fan from Mendota Heights, Minnesota, whom Rypien grabbed coming off the ice Oct. 19, resulting in a six-game suspension?
Bettman: I offered dinner and a game, and so he’ll have dinner and a game.
Y! Sports: But did he take you up on the offer?
Bettman: He said thank you.
Y! Sports: He has criticized the suspension and threatened legal action. Does that change things?
Bettman: Actually, (NHL executive) Mike Murphy(notes) has been trying to get in touch with him to follow up and has been unsuccessful in reaching him despite repeated attempts. The invitation stands. He was invited to dinner and a game, and the invitation stands.