ST. LOUIS — This was Gary Bettman at his thought-provoking best.
The NHL commissioner was in high spirits as he presided over a state of the union address Friday at all-star weekend, detailing a long list of his league’s successes, reaffirming its position on a number of key fronts and making a few colourful points while speaking for more than 30 minutes inside Enterprise Center.
Here are a list of five things we learned from Bettman’s media availability:
1. A decision on the NHL’s participation in the 2022 Olympics will be made on a timetable established by the NHL and the NHL alone
Bettman was asked about recent comments from IIHF president Rene Fasel about needing an answer from the NHL by August. The commissioner didn’t mince words.
“He also said last summer that he wanted an answer by December, and he didn’t get one,” said Bettman. “So we’re going to have to see. I actually think that the deadline is really more one that we would have to impose in terms of logistics. My guess is if at a point in time we said we wanted to go and we could handle the timing of it, my guess is the IIHF could as well.
“That doesn’t mean that I don’t take Rene seriously, but he already gave us one deadline that came and went.”
So when is the NHL’s deadline?
“I don’t know. I’ll know it when I see it, when we get there,” Bettman said. “Obviously first and foremost it has to do with releasing a schedule, right? That’s the game-changer one way or the other.”
2. Puck and player tracking is nearly a reality
The puck and player tracking that you’re seeing on Sportsnet and NBC broadcasts from all-star weekend will be up and running by the playoffs, according to Bettman.
The league then intends to have it fully operational for the entire 2020-21 season — giving fans access to a whole treasure trove of information about the sport with the help of chips planted in each player’s sweater and the puck.
“It’ll be, as a fan and a viewer, what you want it to be,” said Bettman. “You’ll be able to watch the game as you’ve always watched it traditionally if that’s what you want. There’ll be broadcast enhancements that the broadcasters can use either on the primary screen or on secondary screens.
“There will be more data than ever before. I believe the players will generate something like 200 data points per second and the puck 2,000 data points a second, so in terms of getting inside the game, telling stories, as a fan delving in to get what you’re interested in, you’re going to be able to do more things than ever before and even imaginable.”
3. The NHL is happy to keep shining on a light on the world’s best female players
This is the third straight year top female hockey players were involved in the skills competition and Friday’s Elite Women’s 3-on-3 event featured 20 players — the most ever.
Even though Bettman wouldn’t commit to it being an annual thing just yet — “let’s see how it goes tonight,” he said before the competition started, and judging by the crowd’s reaction it was a massive hit — he did indicate that the league appreciates the opportunity to help out a group of women left with nowhere to play this season after the Canadian Women’s Hockey League folded.
“I’m thrilled that we have an opportunity for the women’s game to be demonstrated the way it will tonight,” Bettman said. “I met with the players on both teams about an hour ago, we had a good chat. They’re excited to be here. We’re excited to have them. And the fact that we can shine, using our light, a brighter light on the women’s game I think is a positive for them, for the game and for young girls watching and aspiring to do the same thing.”
It will be no surprise if a NHL-backed women’s league eventually becomes a reality.
4. Alex Ovechkin is forgiven for skipping all-star weekend… almost
Bettman seemed enthused about the possibility of Alex Ovechkin closing the 200-plus goal gap on Wayne Gretzky and potentially challenging his all-time goals record.
“It’s incredible. It’s exciting,” said Bettman. “It’s a testament both to Wayne’s record that it seems to have been unapproachable until now and it’s a testament to Alex Ovechkin and his amazing career so far and one that we hope continues for a number of years. Obviously his longevity, and he seems to be in great shape, will be a factor as to whether or not he can ultimately achieve that record.”
Ovechkin was initially voted captain of the Metropolitan Division team, but elected not to attend the all-star weekend for the second straight year. It wasn’t a popular decision inside the league’s head office and will see the Washington Capitals captain sit out a game as a penalty.
“We miss him and wish he was here but we understand,” said Bettman. “No, we don’t. I miss him.”
5. CBA talks are quiet, but that doesn’t mean they’ve lost importance
Bettman expects talks with the NHL Players’ Association to pick up steam. They had been going strong through the summer and fall — when both sides held a potential reopener — but have fallen quiet since.
The league’s most powerful men want that to change.
“We, principally (deputy commissioner) Bill Daly and I, have been anxious to re-engage,” said Bettman. “The Players’ Association has taken a bit of a deep breath. I think that’s more because they were doing their meetings with the teams…
“My expectation is we’ll re-engage shortly in a more energetic way than perhaps we’ve been in the last couple of months. With the press of everything else that’s going on for them and for us, perhaps knowing there’s more time than we had going into September, I wouldn’t read anything into it other than we’re both still focused on it.”