Gary Bettman doesn’t want to focus on last season’s NHL lockout.
More than a year removed from the start of the work stoppage, the commissioner isn’t looking back.
“We tend to be forward looking,” Bettman said in a phone interview. “In the course of operations of any sports league there are always going to be issues, and what you have to do is tackle the issues, make good, informed decisions, hopefully, and then look forward and move on.”
The man across the bargaining table from Bettman for more than four months is ready to move on, too. But NHLPA executive director Donald Fehr certainly hasn’t forgotten about what he and the players went through.
“I feel like I’m just as busy, although that can’t be true,” Fehr said. “But you just simply don’t have the uncertainty and the ongoing pressure. You’ve got a lot of problems to work through, you’ve got a lot of issues, you’ve got a lot of people to talk to, to go and see and all the rest of it, but when you are facing what was by this time last year the certainty of a very long lockout and an ugly situation, obviously it’s great not to have to live through that again.”
Fans who were prevented from seeing NHL hockey and players robbed of their earning potential until January undoubtedly agree with that sentiment. An 82-game regular season—not what Fehr called an “artificially short” 48-game jaunt—begins Tuesday.
Bettman said he doesn’t think many people are thinking about a year ago, but the differences are drastic. The league and its Players Association collaborated on rule changes last spring that are now in effect, and Fehr considers his interactions with NHL personnel “normal business-like.”
“Last year the presence of the lockout just overwhelmed everything,” Fehr said. “I don’t think people take things personally, not when you’re in a situation in which you’re bargaining. Sometimes you get mad, people are tired and on edge and wish it would end and all the rest of it, but it’s not personal. At least not with me.”
Bettman would prefer it not be personal. Booed by fans at the NHL draft in June and countless other times, he’s the figurehead for a multi-billion-dollar organization with 30 voices to listen to.
It’s 30 strong now after the sales of the Phoenix Coyotes, New Jersey Devils and Florida Panthers during what Bettman called a very busy summer.
“It goes back to making sure you have a system that enables clubs to be competitive and be able to afford to compete and have great competitive balance,” he said. “And I think the stability we have now with a long-term bargaining agreement has made owning a team more attractive.”
It’s Bettman’s belief that the NHL in general is in a better spot than it was going into the lockout. That’s why he brushed off the notion of being relieved the lockout is in the past.
“It’s not about relief. When you’re involved in a sports league you sometimes have to make difficult decisions,” he said. “Sometimes you have to endure short-term pain for long-term decisions that will be important for the growth and stability of the game and the business of the game. Frankly, I’m delighted that we can focus on long-term planning knowing that we have virtually a decade of labour peace.”
With at least six more seasons until either side can opt out of this CBA, Fehr can finally settle into a different aspect of his job. No longer is he a war-time leader.
“When you’re in a bargaining situation, everybody wants to know what’s going on and in a way it’s very focused,” Fehr said. “What we now have is a normal off-season or pre-season in which the questions tend to be individualized, but there’s a lot of them.”
Fehr is clear and direct in saying he’s the Major League Baseball Players Association’s “former director,” shrugging off questions of returning because of current MLBPA director Michael Weiner’s failing health.
Fehr is all-in on the NHLPA.
“I am obviously, having gone through this bargaining, much more comfortable than I was before,” he said. “I think I’ve got a pretty good feel for the people involved, I think I have a much better feel for the players. I think I understand the potential the sport has even better than I did before, I’m sure of that. And I really like it. I’m having a lot of fun, I’m getting a lot of satisfaction out of it.
“Players are absolutely fabulous and I think we’ve got a lot of opportunities before us. So, if together with the NHL we can figure out a way to take advantage of those, it’ll be good for everybody.”