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NHL commissioner Gary Bettman on the Lightning, outdoor games and Mario Lemieux's criticism



NHL commissioner Gary Bettman held a 20-minute news conference at the St. Pete Times Forum before Thursday night's game between the Tampa Bay Lightning and Detroit Red Wings. As always, much of what he said could not fit in Friday's paper, so here is the transcript, beginning with  his opening remarks:

I am personally thrilled and delighted at everything that Mr. Vinik has done for this franchise. He has committed himself to the community to the building to the team and he has done it with all of his resources, his energy. The renovation plans for this building, and I’ve seen the plans, and they’re terrific. The uniform re-design, the logo change, terrific; bringing in Tod Leiweke and Steve Yzerman, first class terrific. And you see thee difference and how well things are going. We couldn’t be more pleased. I think it bodes well for this team, it bodes well for the community and most importantly it bodes well for our fans.

Are you surprised at the Lightning's quick turnaround?
This shows what somebody with resources and commitment can do when his commitment is to making this the best-possible, first-class organization and building there is. It started with the people he hired, and it continues with the commitments he made to invest $35 million dollars in the building, the charitable component of investing $10 million the community over the next five years. Each of the elements of what he’s done brought a commitment to do things the right way. … The verdict is he’s been extraordinarily effective and that’s been great for Tampa.

Any plans for an All-Star Game or draft here after the improvements are made?
They’re more focused, the organization is on doing the things they need to do here. Obviously we’ll look at any bids that are put in for a draft or an All-Star Game thought we we re here in 99 for the All-Star Game and and there are other teams that haven't’t had it. I’m not so sure a bid for an outdoor game would exactly pass muster. But this is a very active building. It’s one of the more active buildings in North America and with all the money being invested in improvements I think it will become  more active either or an NHL basis or for other events and concerts and the like.

Would a franchise in a southern market work for an outdoor game?
As a visiting team? Absolutely, at some point, sure.

Are you going through the process of taking applications to host next year’s outdoor games?
We haven’t made any decisions yet. We’re going through an incredible cycle of events. We had the winter Classic on New Year’s Day. We completed All-Star a couple of weeks ago, and this weekend I’ll be in Calgary for the Heritage Classic which is the third major event in about a six- or seven-week period. Were going to let our events people take a deep breath and then we’ll debrief and start focusing on next year.

Could you see one in Detroit?

Lots of places. … Would we like to do an outdoor game in Michigan? The answer is we know it’s a great hockey market. The Ilitches are terrific owners and they certainly know how to put on first-class events. The logistics, the specifics, as they say the devil’s in the details.

Any update on the TV contracts? It’s a work in progress. It’s not something like to negotiate publicly.

Has Mario Lemieux contacted you or the league office about his displeasure with the way the league handled the Islanders-Penguins melee?
We’re not going to get into a public debate with Mr. Lemieux over his comments. We’re very comfortable with the way the league responded to Friday night’s game. Reasonable people can differ but it’s not something we’re going to have a public debate on.

They say any publicity is good publicity.
That may be so, but we’re not going to. I have the utmost respect and regard for Mario Lemieux but we’re not going to engage in a public debate on this.

Does it seem as soon as you put out on fire in terms of teams that are in financial trouble, another pops up?
First of all we’re hoping that Phoenix will be resolved shortly. It continues to be on track. I saw there was an article about Atlanta. I don’t know that there was any new news in there but speculation runs rampant. The fact is when you’re in this business, any of the sports leagues, there’s always going to be issues. There’s no day you get to just coast.

You always said you believed Tampa Bay was a hockey market.
Led the league in attendance not too many years ago.

Do you still feel that way?
Absolutely, there’s never been any doubt. Please don’t confuse how we think and what we believe with what some of the media speculation is as to what they suggest we think and we believe. We like the markets we are in. We believe in them, and Tampa as a good illustration is a franchise that I have confidence in. I think there’s terrific ownership, terrific organization. Hiring Tod Leiweke and Steve Yzerman tells you everything you want to know about the way Jeff Vinik runs things.

What advice did you give Jeff?
(Laughs) He can tell you if he wants to. Having those conversations isn’t very productive if people think you’re going to make them public. I told him, though, that I believe this could be again a terrific franchise and this was a strong market and a great opportunity.

Do you see any similarities between Vinik and (former owner) Bill Davidson in terms of operating style?
Bill Davidson, and I guess they share this in common, Bill was somebody who I knew and respected over a long period of time, but he always believed in doing things in a first-class way, doing the right things, and my experience with Jeff Vinik is the same.

Can you talk about plans for the outdoor games going forward? Could there be two a year?
We haven’t made that judgment. I’ve said we like to complete one cycle of major events before we focus on the next cycle. We have our second outdoor event this weekend in Calgary. After that we’ll sit down and figure out what makes sense. Was two the right number, should we do fewer should we do more? I don’t have an answer for that right now. But that’s something when we have the full body of experience in front of us, we’ll sit down and figure it out.

Will you keep the same format for the All-Star Game?
We think the experience was terrific. The feedback was great but we haven’t actually sat down to have a conversation about what we can do to even make it better or what changes we might want to make. As soon as the events people got done in Carolina they started heading toward Calgary. So when you think about the number of major events we’re putting on in less than two months it’s absolutely incredible. So, worrying about out next year we don’t have the luxury of that until we get through this weekend and we give the people in events at least 24 hours off to catch their breath.

Why has the outdoor games been such a success?
I think it captures the imagination. It takes the game back to its roots of children learning to skate outdoors on frozen ponds. The first one in Buffalo with the snow-glow effect was part of it. It’s just a lot of fun. People tune in because, yeah, they’re hockey fans and they want to see a terrific matchup. It’s just a lot of fun to see the game outdoors, and to see it in front of so many people. We’re used to playing in front of 20,000 people. To do it in front of 70,000 people is a different experience. It’s unique.

Could it lose the uniqueness?
It hasn’t lost it yet. In fact, the research we do, our fans love it. They seem to tell us they can’t get enough of it. For anything you do there will always be people who say, well, why didn’t you do this or this is no good or that is no good. The fact of the matter is, what we’re hearing from the fans and the response we get, it is a huge event not just on television, in the market in the facilities where we’re playing, it is absolutely huge. Pittsburgh, we heard from people this was the biggest event they had ever seen in Pittsburgh including AFC championship games. It is a very big deal when you’re on the ground there.

Should people in Atlanta be worried about the Thrashers perhaps moving?
I never like people to get worried. I never liked people to get their expectations raised. Some of this gets fed by, well, if they lose the team maybe we get the team. And we don’t like to buy into that. There have been stories over the years about this franchise and it’s not fair to the fans. This franchise, fans here have nothing to worry about. The team is well-owned, well-capitalized, is being well-run. The future is bright, so I don’t like getting into all this speculation because generally that’s all it is is speculation.

[Last modified: Sunday, March 20, 2011 12:15am]


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