NHL commissioner Gary Bettman: 'Our game is better' than Olympics hockey
National Hockey League commissioner Gary Bettman paid a visit to NBC's Olympics studio set Thursday morning, on the eve of the much-anticipated United States-Canada men's semifinal.
Hockey as a sport has gained unprecedented buzz during the tournament in Sochi. The U.S.' dramatic group stage win over Russia averaged 4.1 million TV viewers on NBCSN, and the last half hour peaked at 6.5 million viewers. Wednesday's U.S.-Czech Republic quarterfinal was the second-most viewed event in the history of NBC's online streaming platform.
But the NHL's participation in the 2018 Olympics in Pyeongchang, South Korea is still up in the air - and it's squarely because of the men who pay Bettman's salary.
It's no secret that many NHL owners don't share hockey fans' enthusiasm for the Olympics. Flyers chairman Ed Snider is among the most vocal opponents, having told reporters "I hate them" before his players left for Sochi. It's a fair bet that the New York Islanders aren't too fond of the event either right now, as star center Jonathan Tavares blew out his left knee in Canada's quarterfinal win over Latvia.
Bettman's sit-down with veteran NBC host Al Michaels presented an opportunity to lay some of those questions squarely on the table. Michaels - a renowned hockey fan and Los Angeles Kings season-ticket holder - did not hold anything back. He asked Bettman directly whether the NHL will send its players to Pyeongchang.
"I don't know," Bettman answered. "There are mixed views among the owners. There are lots of quotes going in both directions."
It was a typical answer from Bettman, even if it wasn't the "no" his owners might have liked to hear. Before Bettman could say anything more, Michaels cut him off and asked whether it was simply due to the league having to suspend play during the Olympics.
"It's a real balancing act," Bettman said. "Coming to the Olympics is a lot of fun when you’re here and the hockey is fun not as good as the Stanley Cup Playoffs, but we can have that debate at a different time."
Bettman argued that stopping the season leads to "a break in momentum." He specifically noted that the Olympics come at "a point in time when the NFL has stopped, and it's really our time."
"In the final analysis, I have no idea," Bettman said, adding that as of now, "it's not something that we've looked at."
Perhaps that last phrase had a double meaning.
Michaels also asked Bettman about another hot topic for hockey fans who follow the NHL and the Olympics: whether the league might widen its rinks to the international standard. Olympic rinks are 15 feet wider, and the zones are sized differently from the NHL's. The width in particular is credited with giving Olympic hockey a more dynamic, creative style than the NHL often sees.
But Bettman doesn't see things that way. In his sharpest comments of the entire interview, he insisted that "our game is better."
"I think our game has more offensive intensity, particularly play around the net," he said. "There have been some people who have advocated that it’s a little safer, [and] I don’t buy that either. In Vancouver - which, by the way, most people say is the best hockey tournament that has been in the Olympics - that was played on NHL ice, and our injury factor seems to have been a lot less than it is here."
Bettman finished the point by calling his remarks "a long winded way of saying that I've talked to a lot of our hockey people who are here, [and] we're not advocates of the bigger ice."
For as much as NHL owners don't like the Olympics, the players clearly do. Bettman was willing to concede that much. Indeed, he even seemed to enjoy talking about it.
"They love it," he said. "First and foremost, you know from a young age our players take great pride in representing their countries... For them, this is a great experience, and everything I've heard about the day-to-day existence of being here is that the facilities have been terrific."
Finally, Michaels asked Bettman whether the NHL might some day support a women's professional league, similar to what the NBA has done with the WNBA. The popularity of the United States-Canada women's rivalry has led some observers to wonder whether women's hockey could grow even more with support from the NHL.
Bettman said he'd like to see it, but he doesn't think a league would be financially sustainable - even with a NBA/WNBA-style operation.
"The overall development of women's hockey from the grassroots level through the college level isn't at a point where a professional league is viable," he said. "We very much believe in the importance of the women’s game... but it's going to take some more time and more development. We're still trying to grow men's hockey."
Of everything Bettman said in the interview, that last sentence may have meant the most.