NHL commissioner Gary Bettman and deputy commissioner Bill Daly faced the press - virtually - on the eve of Game 1 in Tampa Bay for the annual pre-Stanley Cup final availability and there was no shortage of topics to discuss with us hacks.
Bettman began the press conference in a spirited mood, buoyed by the return of fans to games (even if not at full capacity yet) and the addition of 17 new corporate partners since the pandemic began. The commissioner also announced the pledge of $5 million over the next 18 months towards diversity and inclusion programs.
But there were also controversies to face and many of the questions early on in the Q & A centered around officiating and the unfolding Chicago Blackhawks scandal. Along the way, Bettman and Daly also answered queries on a variety of topics and made some exciting announcements on future events. Here's a look at the highlights:
Bettman knew this was coming and addressed the state of refereeing in the playoffs during his opening statement.
"Let's be clear," he said. "Our officials are not only the best hockey officials in the world, they are the best officials in any sport. No sport comes close to matching the speed and split-second reaction time required to make - or not make - hundreds of calls in real time. Yes, our officials miss calls. Not as many as some suggest, but they occasionally miss calls, just as coaches and players make mistakes."
Bettman went on to say the league doesn't like when it happens, but that it is part of the human nature of calling a game and that the NHL will continue to add technology to assist its officials in the future.
Later on, he went into further detail, claiming that as the stakes get higher (playoffs versus regular season), players "ramp it up," meaning the games get tougher. Certainly, the average post-season game is more intense and fun to watch than a regular season game - but it's also fair to wonder how Connor McDavid goes an entire playoff series without drawing a single penalty.
As was assumed, Bettman and Daly did not go into a lot of detail when it came to the Brad Aldrich scandal. The Chicago Blackhawks have opened up an independent investigation on how the former video coach's alleged assaults were handled and Bettman noted that the NHL will wait until that investigation is completed before deciding what the league's reaction will be.
"All options are available if there's something that warrants punishment," Bettman said. "We need to wait and see what the result of the investigation and the litigation that seems to be pending as well. What we know is based on what is public. That's why we are interested to see what the investigation reveals and doesn't reveal."
The NHL did not send players to the most recent Winter Olympics, held in South Korea. Two of the factors were the time difference and the interruption of the NHL schedule. With the 2022 Games being held in China, both those issues remain and though the NHL knows the players want to go, there are a number of obstacles still in the way.
"It's still very much a work in progress," Daly said. "Not necessarily an ideal Games to elect to go to. Having said that, we negotiated in good faith with the Players' Association last summer. We agreed that if the conditions were right and we could reach agreement on all the material issues that we would commit and support going to the Olympics. And that remains our position."
From the NHL's perspective, time is running out. Daly said the league would like to release its schedule before the draft, which takes place in less than a month. The IOC seems to be preoccupied with the upcoming Summer Games in Japan (which start the same day) and the NHL still has a lot of questions and concerns. What will the Covid protocols be, for example? Will fans be allowed in the arenas? How will the pandemic impact insurance for players? Insurance has long been a hot topic for the NHL and its international partners, so don't overlook its importance in this conversation. But the current pandemic landscape also looms large.
"We have real concerns about whether or not it's sensible to be participating," Bettman said. "But as Bill said, we made a promise that if it can all be worked out, we'll go along with it. But we are concerned both about the timing now and the open issues and the prospects of actually being there."
A question about future NHL games in Europe was also referred back to the Olympic situation, so it seems as though a lot is tangled up in the Beijing Games decision right now.
Always a treat for the home fans, outdoor games are once again on the schedule for next season with the Minnesota Wild hosting the St. Louis Blues at Target Field in Minneapolis on Jan. 1 and the Nashville Predators hosting the Tampa Bay Lightning at Nissan Stadium in Nashville on Feb. 26. Las Vegas will also the host All-Star Weekend and there will be a Heritage Classic of some sort in March, but the details have not been hammered out yet.
Ads on Jerseys
Finally, Bettman revealed that ads on helmets are staying for next year, but no jersey ads are being considered yet. He also maintained on a follow-up question that ads on jerseys are not "inevitable," but did not close the door on their introduction some time in the future, either.