The NHL and Hockey in Canada
The Empire Club of Canada Addresses (Toronto, Canada), 31 Oct 2002, p. 117-129

Bettman, Gary B., Speaker
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Hockey - how far we have come. A brief history with highlights. What hockey means to Canada. Hockey events and anniversaries. Team Canada. Hockey in Toronto. Partnerships with the NHL in Canada. Challenges as we look ahead. The issues. Recent steps taken. The strong future of hockey. Continuing to work to strengthen the game.
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31 Oct 2002
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The speeches are free of charge but please note that the Empire Club of Canada retains copyright. Neither the speeches themselves nor any part of their content may be used for any purpose other than personal interest or research without the explicit permission of the Empire Club of Canada.
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Full Text
Gary B. Bettman Commissioner, National Hockey League
Chairman: Ann Curran
President, The Empire Club of Canada
Head Table Guests

Bill Laidlaw, Immediate Past President, The Empire Club Of Canada; David Kochanowski, OAC Student, North Toronto Collegiate Institute and President, Boys Athletic Association; The Rev. Stephen Peake, Rector, St. Thomas Anglican Church, Shanty Bay; Keith Pelley, President, TSN; Ken Dryden, Executive Vice-President, Maple Leaf Sports and Entertainment Ltd.; Rick Brace, President, CTV Inc.; Richard A. Peddie, President and CEO, Maple Leaf Sports and Entertainment Ltd.; Col. Frederic L.R. Jackman, CStJ, PhD, LLD, President, Invicta Investments Inc. and Past President, The Empire Club of Canada; Douglas E. Grundy, Director. Greater Toronto Hockey League and Partner, Fasken Martineau DuMoulin LLP; George Gross, Sports Media Canada; Nancy Lee, Executive Director, CBC Sports; and Steve A. Stavro, Chairman, Maple Leaf Sports and Entertainment Ltd.

Introduction by Ann Curran

Gary B. Bettmen is the first commissioner in National Hockey League history. having been elected by the Board of Governors on December 11, 1992. He began his tenure on February 1, 1993. Under his direction, the league has experienced a period of unprecedented growth, most notably in the areas of expansion, broadcasting and marketing.

Under Mr. Bettman's leadership we have seen the broadcasts of NET, games returned to national network television in the United States for the first time in 20 years in a partnership with ABC and ESPN/ESPN 2, which brings NHL games to more than 85 million homes nationwide. This year, the NHL reached a five-year agreement with CBC and TSN for national English-language telecast rights of games in Canada, which gives Canadian viewers the opportunity to see a minimum of 112 regular-season games, up from 94 over the past season.

Mr. Bettman's other accomplishments as commissioner reflect his commitment to stability. The NHL will have enjoyed a full decade of labour peace by the conclusion of the current collective bargaining agreement with the NHL Players' Association in 2004. In addition, the NHL and the NHL Officials' Association recently agreed to terms of a collective-bargaining agreement that is scheduled to run through the 2004-05 season.

Commissioner Bettman has also placed a premium on building and nurturing the sport's fan base through grass-roots initiatives that bring hockey to more youngsters than ever. These programs include NHL Street and the NHL Diversity programs. In addition, the league's Web site,, has created a global hockey portal that most efficiently serves the league, the clubs and the fans.

While continuing to provide high-calibre product on the ice, Mr. Bettman also has focused attention on the league's international makeup and appeal. In 1998, Mr. Bettman led the NHL to its first Olympic winter games, with NHL players stocking the rosters of six world-class teams. It was estimated that more than 38 million people watched the Olympic gold-medal game in the United States. In Canada, the matchup was the most-watched television program in history. As a further testament to the league's international appeal, NET, regular-season and playoff games are seen in more than 160 countries worldwide.

Last but not least, changes to the game at the start of the 2002-03 season have begun to address the issues that concern the media, the sponsors and most importantly--the fans. Mesh has been installed above the glass at both ends of the ice in all arenas of the NHL as a direct consequence of the fatal injury suffered by a young fan last year. Also, the "hurry-up" faceoff rule, employed in last year's Winter Olympics, has been instituted in order to speed up the game and enhance the experience of the viewing public.

Before being named Commissioner of the NHL, Mr. Bettman served 12 years with the National Basketball Association, attaining

the position of Senior Vice-President and General Counsel. Prior to that, he was associated with the New York law firm of Proskauer Rose Goetz & Mendelsohn.

Mr. Bettman is a native of Queens, NY and graduated from both Cornell University and the New York University School of Law. Ladies and gentlemen--Gary Bettman.

Gary Bettman

Thank you very much Ann.

It is a pleasure to be here today especially because it's a game day in Toronto.

The Maple Leafs, one of our senior franchises, are playing at home tonight against one of our youngest, the Atlanta Thrashers.

We are near the start of "Hall of Fame" weekend--a time when all of us in the community of hockey can honour the sport's grand history, pay appropriate respect to its present and cast an eye toward the future of the magnificent game Canada created and shares with the rest of the world.

And I would be remised if I did not pass along congratulations to George Gross on both his recent induction into the Etobicoke Sports Hall of Fame and his upcoming induction into the Slovakian Hockey Hall of Fame. Lot of halls for a terrific guy. Well deserved George.

Two nights from tonight, the Montreal Canadiens come to Air Canada Centre to rekindle an "original six" rivalry. "Hockey Night in Canada" will cover it as a marquee matchup, just one day after the actual 50th anniversary of its inception.

On November 1, 1952, black-and-white sets in living rooms across the nation welcomed "Hockey Night" into Canada's consciousness. It has never left and it never will. The Maple Leafs beat the Boston Bruins 3-2 that night and a marvellous tradition was born.

How very far we've come since that remarkable evening and how very far we intend to go.

As I made my plans to be here today, I couldn't help but reflect on the mood of Canadian hockey fans in April, 1998, the last time I addressed a business luncheon in Toronto. At that time, the mood was one of concern.

The Canadian men's hockey team had just finished out of the medals at the Winter Olympics in Nagano. The women's team had just lost to the United States in their gold medal game. Minor hockey registration and the per-centage of Canadian-born players in the NHL were both on the decline. It seemed that you could not pick up a newspaper or turn on the radio or TV without people focusing on problems of the game, at all levels.

Fast forward to 2002 and it's amazing how two gold medals and an increase in the number of Canadian-born players in the league for the first time in four years can change the mood of an entire country when it comes to this great game.

But it goes so much deeper than that. After the doom and gloom of years ago at the grass-roots level, the vital signs are encouraging. After several years of declining enrolment in minor hockey through the late '90s, we have seen a reversal of that trend among males. Over the past two years, registration has actually grown.

And there has been a remarkable increase in females playing the game over the past two years. Registration has grown by more than 25 per cent.

And I am pleased that we are joined here today by a woman who has done as much for this growth as any individual over the last decade--the captain of the gold-medal Canadian women's team, Cassie Campbell. Cassie, you are a great role model for the youth of this country and we wish you well in the upcoming four-nations tournament in Kitchener next week.

The NHL's connection to minor hockey in this country is very important to us. Earlier this year, in what is the first agreement of its kind between a national governing body and a professional sports league in North America,

the NHL and the Canadian Hockey Association formed a partnership with the objective of strengthening the game at the grass-roots level.

One of the first results of this relationship is a new video to be shown to all minor hockey players and coaches. It is entitled "Smart Hockey," in which several NHL players, including Mats Sundin, Martin Brodeur and Trevor Linden provide tips to youngsters on how to play the game more safely.

As in any community, we learn from each other. Earlier this month, the coaching staffs of the Senators, Maple Leafs, Oilers and Flames, in partnership with the CHA, staged coaching clinics in Toronto and Calgary for more than 5,000 minor hockey coaches from across Ontario and Alberta.

Hockey is Canada's game, and hockey in Canada is family life, school life and community life. Let me illustrate. The Columbus Blue Jackets spent five days of their training camp this September in Summerside, Prince Edward Island, the hometown of Club President and General Manager Doug MacLean. The team participated in a number of community-based fund-raising events--golf tournaments and inter-squad games--and raised $25,000 for minor hockey.

Almost one-third of the town's population of 16,000 huddled, shoulder to shoulder, in the wooden bleachers of Cahill Stadium, sat on the stairs in the aisles and stood two-deep in the standing-room area, all to get a glimpse of the practice of a team that plays its home games some 2,500 kilometres away!

There was a similar scene in the village of Chester, Nova Scotia, where the Ottawa Senators travelled for a portion of their training camp. More than 600 hockey fans--mostly children--packed the local arena to watch the Senators participate in a midday 90-minute practice. A practice--and on a school day no less!

And what better sign of the place that this game holds in the heart and soul of Canadians than was in evidence at the other end of the country--in Vancouver, a couple of weeks ago, when Queen Elizabeth attended her first NHL game in more than 50 years. I had the pleasure of being in Vancouver to witness firsthand the special bond to the monarchy. In fact, if we go back to the 1890s, we know that the sons of Lord Stanley introduced the game to several royal princes on a frozen pond at Buckingham Palace. The Stanleys, of course, became hockey devotees while living in Ottawa, where their father was Governor General and donated a silver punch bowl to be awarded annually to the best senior hockey team in the Dominion of Canada.

It seems that so many important anniversaries in this country are marked by hockey events. The celebration of one such important anniversary gripped the country in recent weeks as members of Team Canada '72 gathered to celebrate the 30th anniversary of their historic Summit-Series win over the Soviet Union. Four members of that team are with us here today and I would like to take a moment and salute Ken Dryden, Ron Ellis, Frank Mahovlich and Rod Selling for their roles as great NHL players and pioneers on the international hockey stage.

On the heels of the commemorative Team Canada celebration was another national event. Like tens of thousands of others, I followed with both interest and amazement as everyday national and worldwide issues took a back seat to the "does he stay or does he go" debate. Yes, the outpouring of emotion evoked for "Hockey Night in Canada" host Ron MacLean was extraordinary. It's great to have Ron back and I look forward to my next interview on "Hockey Night." His grasp of the issues is first-rate, and as we proved when I was last on the show, it makes for gripping television.

All of our clubs are integrally involved in grass-roots programs in their communities. Juxtaposed with these

are the harsh business realities that all of our clubs--but particularly our Canadian teams--continue to face.

A couple of examples...

On the same day that the Blue Jackets were playing to a packed house in PEI, Edmonton Oilers' President Patrick LaForge and GM Kevin Lowe were in Saskatchewan, addressing the Saskatoon and District Chamber of Commerce on the benefits of that community supporting the Oilers by purchasing tickets to games in Edmonton.

The Calgary Flames have recently undertaken a similar strategy in southern Alberta. While the club held an open practice in front of more than 400 fans in Red Deer, Flames President Ken King held a reception for more than 600 people representing small businesses and corporations.

It is all part of a refocused regional ticket sales approach that our Canadian clubs must undertake to ensure their continued financial viability.

Ottawa business leaders have joined together in an organization called the Silver Sticks to increase awareness among small business owners that season tickets are crucial to any club and have set an objective to sell over 2,000 season tickets through December.

This organization is modelled after the success of Edmonton's 50-member Copper Jackets efforts, started in 2000, and which now gives Edmonton a season ticket base of over 15,000.

Right here in Toronto, the Leafs have an aggressive fan-development program that is focused on bringing many diverse communities into the game.

This initiative, called the "Coaches helping Coaches Minor Hockey Festival," featured some of the game's best minds helping to educate minor hockey coaches. Pat Quinn and Ottawa's Jacques Martin participated this year and over 1,200 coaches benefited. And that means 17,000 kids also will benefit.

And our NHL community members contribute in a big way financially. In the past five years, our Canadian clubs have given over $26 million to local charities. In the last year alone, our Canadian clubs have raised over $8 million with the participation and support of our players.

In each of our NHL cities, players have purchased suites or tickets and each night donate them to kids so they, too, can be part of the game.

These individual contributions, such as Mats Sundin's Captains Corner in the Air Canada Centre and the Nazzy Suite in Vancouver, purchased by Markus Naslund, represent the commitment of our players and club management to be outstanding members of the community.

Any community is built on relationships, and that certainly is evident in the partnerships that the NHL has here in Canada.

The league has renewed with CBC and I would like to recognize and thank Nancy Lee for the long-time partnership that the NHL and "Hockey Night in Canada" have shared. "Hockey Night" is the longest-running show in broadcast history and there is no greater Canadian institution or one that matters more to Canadians as we all witnessed a few weeks ago.

I would like to welcome TSN back to the NHL family. With the efforts of Rick Brace and Keith Pelley Canadian hockey fans are already seeing the dedication and passion that TSN brings to viewers across the country.

We're also extremely pleased about our new, improved relationship with RDS in Quebec and we're delighted SRC will continue to participate with some Saturday night Canadiens games.

We renewed all our "centre ice" out-of-market digital broadcast deals, so all our partners on that end are back--with long-term deals that feature built-in growth and give our fans as many of our games as they want.

The NHL network is off to a good start, and we are finalizing a deal to bring it to carriers in the U.S.

I mentioned earlier that grass-roots programs are vital to our clubs and their communities and the same holds true for our marketing partners. Just two of many great examples come to mind in McDonald's and Esso.

McDonald's has been a valued partner of the NHL for more than 10 years, operating consumer-based programs at least twice each season across Canada.

Equally important is the support that McDonald's provides to the Canadian Olympic programs, as well as to minor hockey with their current "stop" or safety-towards-other-players program.

And Esso has been a phenomenal corporate supporter of hockey in Canada over the past 70 years. We are thrilled to be in the midst of a seven-year partnership with Esso and to work together in our support of grass-roots initiatives across the country such as the recent "get cup crazy" campaign.

Our partners at all levels have provided exceptional support for our initiatives at the grass-roots level, but, as you know, the professional hockey business component faces significant challenges as we look ahead.

I don't want to dwell on this, but I can't go anywhere without being asked so let's get it out of the way.

We have had phenomenal revenue growth over the last 10 years, but as fast as we've been able to grow revenues, player salaries have grown even faster. This has resulted in a disparity between revenue and expense and a disparity among our teams in terms of what they can afford to spend, which, as in all sports, is exacerbated by big market/small market issues. In our case, the issue is even more troublesome due to the currency challenges faced by our Canadian franchises.

Everyone knows the issues. Everyone knows that I have tried to get the union to begin discussions. But, the union chooses not to, which is its right at this point. The union wants the status quo but the status quo is not going to work if we want--which we do--all clubs economically viable and competitive where they are currently located, particularly in Canada.

So it's my responsibility to ensure that the issues get fixed. But there is nothing we can do about it now. And, there is no point in dwelling on something that may be two years away. The problems will get worse and the solutions more difficult, but we have two seasons of hockey in front of us, so let's enjoy them and then we'll deal with it. The timing, for better or worse, is the union's call.

In the meantime, let's focus on the game.

Most of you have probably already taken note of the increased flow of the game with our move to the hurry-up line-change procedure. Through the early part of the season we have been able to shave about 16 minutes off the time of our games from a year ago. Our average time of game through the first few weeks has been about two hours and 20 minutes, and while it is too early to predict what the exact time for this season will be, I think it is interesting to note that it has been 40 years since our games were played, on average, in less than two hours and 20 minutes.

While professional sports have faced increasing criticism for games that are starting later and lasting longer, we have taken steps to ensure that the overwhelming majority of our games begin no later than 7:30, local time, so our young fans can enjoy the game.

More important than the actual time of games, however, is the better flow that we are seeing. The hurry-up line change has been a factor in this. But so too has been the work that Colin Campbell, Jim Gregory, Mike Murphy and Andy Van Hellemond have done with the standard of enforcement against forechecker interference, a.k.a. obstruction. Interference, holding, hooking and tripping have been issues that this game has had to address on a

constant basis during our 86-year history. It's nothing new. Coon Smythe, in November 1926, said: "Each season there seems to be some new ruling invented or rather an interpretation of a rule that the referees all have different ideas about and which do not work out as planned. I am speaking about the interpretation of the interference rule."

The fact is that you could not find an era, and quite possibly a season in the 86-year history of the league when this issue has not been a focal point at some point. Our challenge, when we started addressing this issue more than a year ago, was to adopt a standard that would work from game #1 of the regular season through to the Stanley Cup finals. Unlike previous attempts to address this issue in 1995 and 1998, we simplified the focus. We identified an important aspect of the game, forechecking, that has been lost because players could not get into the offensive zone in recent years because they were being held, hooked or tripped.

The next challenge was to communicate the standard effectively, and we did that when, for the first time, we gathered general managers, coaches and referees and linesmen in one room here in Toronto last month to discuss the issue.

We feel, based on the games to date, that the coaches have effectively communicated the standard to the players and while we're off to a good start in this regard, it is hardly a reason to celebrate. Only by season's end will we be able to take stock of how effective we have been and that is why every game, every night, is being watched by our hockey operations staff here in Toronto. The officials, and now there are two referees, are being evaluated on a nightly basis and when there are issues we are communicating with the referees immediately.

We have taken these steps because the game deserves them and our fans deserve them. We must respect the legacy left us by the builders of the game, the people we venerate just three short blocks away in the Hall of Fame and the community of hockey, led by the people of Canada.

Where else in the world can you find a sport depicted on a country's currency as hockey is on Canada's five-dollar bill?

Where else in the world is there an annual tribute to a country's sports heroes on a series of stamps, as Canada Post does to honour all-time NHL greats?

Where else in the world can you find signs on residential streets that read "hockey playing prohibited" and have people debate the merits of such a law?

Where else in the world do former professional athletes give back to the game by way of purchasing and operating minor teams to the level that we see with both former and current NHL players such as the Hunters, Ciccarellis, Suffers, Vanbiesbroucks, Niedermayers, MacDermids, Carbonneaus, Savards, Quinns and Howes--all of whom are involved with Canadian junior hockey?

Where else can the world junior hockey championships be staged as they will be in Halifax and Sydney in less than two months--as they were in Montreal, Hamilton, Saskatoon, Red Deer and Winnipeg previously--and find, in addition to upwards of a million people tuning in to TSN, a record quarter of a million tickets already sold and 1,200 volunteers ready to do everything and anything to guarantee the tournament's success?

And where else in the world does a national broadcaster devote an entire day to promoting any sport at all levels as CBC has each of the past two years and as they will do again on February 15 from Canada's far north with "Hockey Day in Canada" from Igaluit.

The answer is nowhere else.

For what will be 10 years in this position this February--time indeed does fly.

I have said repeatedly that I believe that the future of hockey is both strong and vital. But that future does not mean that we can take our sport for granted. Care of it must be constant, and to the extent there may be problems, they must continue to be addressed.

We cannot allow--I will not allow--Canada's gift to the world to diminish here in its home country. We must--and we will--continue to work to strengthen the game from its smallest grass roots to its mightiest franchises. Hockey has given us so much for so long, we are duty-bound to give back to it.

Thank you for giving me the opportunity to speak with you here today.

The appreciation of the meeting was expressed by Bill Laidlaw, Immediate Past President, The Empire Club Of Canada.

Bill Laidlaw, Immediate Past President, The Empire Club of Canada, Ken Dryden, Executive Vice-President, Maple Leaf Sports and Entertainment Ltd. and Douglas E. Grundy, Director, Greater Toronto Hockey League and Partner, Fasken Martineau ImMoulin LLP.

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The NHL and Hockey in Canada

Hockey - how far we have come. A brief history with highlights. What hockey means to Canada. Hockey events and anniversaries. Team Canada. Hockey in Toronto. Partnerships with the NHL in Canada. Challenges as we look ahead. The issues. Recent steps taken. The strong future of hockey. Continuing to work to strengthen the game.