NHL commissioner Gary Bettman spoke with NBC Sports’ Mike Tirico on Tuesday to discuss how the league was handling the coronavirus pandemic and what may come next for the suspended 2019-20 season. Bettman said the NHL is “looking at all options. Nothing’s been ruled in. Nothing’s been ruled out.” He hoped the league will know more about how to proceed “by the end of April.”
During the video conference call, Bettman admitted for the first time that completing the regular season “may not be possible.”
He continued, “But I do believe we can play into the summer — well into the summer. And even on NBC platforms, since the Olympics have been postponed, gives us a broader window to focus on when and how we can play.”
Here’s the full transcript of Bettman’s chat with Tirico.
NHL players have really made themselves available to their fans via social media over the last few weeks.
Gary Bettman: “Our guys have been absolutely terrific under incredibly difficult circumstances. Difficult for everybody, not just them. They love the game. They love our fans, and by putting themselves out there, it’s really an opportunity to have people stay connected with the game and put smiles on peoples’ faces. As I was watching the video you were showing, I was smiling to myself and I don’t smile a lot these days because this is a real difficult time that we’re all dealing with.”
You, Adam Silver, Roger Goddell, Rob Manfred, are on the front lines of it but the commissioners in college and every sport have so many issues to deal with right now. Many leaders in these sports worlds were on a conference call with President Trump. How would you describe the content and context of that call?
Gary Bettman: “Well, first of all, all of us running sports, are basically focused on the same things. First and foremost, peoples’ health and well being and safety is the most important. And while we all miss sports, either putting it on or watching it, and we all want to come back as quickly as possible, we understand what the number one priority is. The conference call was for the four majors plus a number of the other sports. President Trump gave us a briefing and brought us up to date. Obviously, he, like us, would like to see sports back at the right time both in terms of what sports represents and bringing people together and also we’re a bit of an economic engine. Tens of thousands of people work in sports. Each of us had an opportunity to make a comment, ask a question, and it was a very cordial, constructive conversation. Although the uncertainty of the times weren’t clarified in that call, we’re all going to have to wait until we have a lot more information maybe in the next few weeks before we can make any decisions.”
How did the content of the conversation change your mindset of a target date could be if things go well?
Gary Bettman: “I think right now there’s too much uncertainty. Hopefully, we’ll all know more by the end of April. From an NHL standpoint, and I’m sure this is what the other leagues are doing, we’re viewing all of our options. We want to be ready to go as soon as we get a green light. And the green light may not be crystal clear because there may still be some places in the country where you can’t play and other places you can. We’re looking at all options. Nothing’s been ruled in. Nothing’s been ruled out. And it’s largely going to be determined, what we do, by how much time there is because we have next season to focus on as well and the health of the country — both Canada and the US obviously.”
7 of your 31 franchises are in Canada. Have you been in communication with Justin Trudeau?
Gary Bettman: “We’re staying in touch with appropriate governmental authorities at all levels and there aren’t a lot of answers yet. What we can do — and what we did when we took the pause — was we wanted to make sure our people, in particular our players, were healthy and that we weren’t part of spreading the virus and that our community has basically been self-isolated. We’ve only had seven players who tested positive – five on one team. That wasn’t surprising. It was a team that had to fly cross-country and somebody was infected on the plane. There have been a number of tests and they have been negative. But in the final analysis, we’re all as a family as a league doing what we have to do to keep our people healthy and not be a part of the problem. I know it’s got to be incredibly frustrating for our players who not only love the game but love staying in shape. And this has been a challenging time for everyone. When we get the opportunity to allow workouts, which may be by jurisdiction by jurisdiction, when we get the opportunity to play on some basis, we’ll be prepared to execute whatever makes the most sense under the circumstances at the time.”
Four of your franchises are in the New York area if you include the Devils. Will you need all 31 franchises have an equal opportunity to get back to preparation before you give a green light for the season to get back going?
Gary Bettman: “Our clubs are incredibly competitive and whatever we do, it has to be fair, which is why there’s been some public speculation in the media about neutral site games in remote parts of the country. That’s just part of considering all of potential options depending on how we find the circumstances. But when you talk about fairness, we also have issues about if we get to play a playoffs, who gets in if we can’t complete the regular season. I think we had seven teams on the bubble and they all thought they would have had a chance. We have to deal with the lottery and the order of selection in the draft. So the best thing and the easiest thing is that if some point if we can complete the regular season, and then go into the playoffs as we normally do, we understand that that may not be possible. And that’s why we’re considering every conceivable alternative to deal whatever the eventuality is. But again, it doesn’t even pay to speculate because nobody in any of the sports knows enough now to make those profound decisions.”
Do you have a window of how long it would take from a green light to when teams can get back on the ice?
Gary Bettman: “First and foremost, we have to give the opportunity for the players to get back into game shape. And they’re going to need to tune up. And that’s something we’re consulting and will be continuing to consult with the Players Association on. As important as health and well being is right now and that’s paramount over everything, but when we come back we have to make sure we don’t do anything to jeopardize the players in terms of their ability to play and making sure they’re in game-ready shape. And that all goes into the equation. Yes, we need at least a couple of weeks for that. But I do believe we can play into the summer — well into the summer. And even on NBC platforms, since the Olympics have been postponed, gives us a broader window to focus on when and how we can play. Nothing has been ruled in and nothing has been ruled out.”
Do you feel comfortable you could play into the summer and the quality of ice would be fine?
Gary Bettman: “The days of when games had to be postponed because there was no air conditioning in a building are long behind us. We have modern, state-of-the-art buildings and we play in places like Florida, Southern California, Arizona, Las Vegas, Dallas. We can handle making ice now in any condition because our buildings are that good and our ice-making capability is that good because as you know we play outdoors too even when it’s warm sometimes. Ice won’t be a factor. That’ll be something we deal with but the least of the issues we’re focusing on.”
What has this been like for you to go through as a leader?
Gary Bettman: “Listen. We all have the same concerns. I’m extraordinarily fortunate that I have great ownership that’s incredibly supportive and the league office organization and the people that I work with day in and day out and the organizations of all of our clubs are outstanding and focused on what’s important. We’re all passionate about the game. The Players Association has been continuously engaged in constructive dialogue. We love our game. We love all the people involved in our game on and off the ice. Our first focus is keeping everybody healthy and safe. We want to get back to playing for our fans and for the love of the game as soon as it makes sense and is safe to do so.”
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