LAS VEGAS -- Gary Bettman went hard on Canada and easy on Rocky Wirtz.
The NHL commissioner’s annual All-Star Weekend address was equal parts celebration (Look at all the young talent!), strategic challenge (Loosen your gathering restrictions, Canada!), and damage control.
While planes carrying some of the NHL’s brightest stars, most important investors, and chief decision-makers descended in Las Vegas earlier this week, Chicago Blackhawks owner Rocky Wirtz was giving them all something to gab about.
If you’re reading this, surely you’re one of the millions who viewed Wirtz’s embarrassing, jaw-dropping Succession-like clip from his club’s townhall.
The one in which he goes full Logan Roy, telling his own son, Danny, to hush while he berates a pair of reporters for daring to ask what the team is doing to prevent another Kyle Beach tragedy.
That Wirtz -- who also serves on the league’s executive board and wields great power -- since issued an apology to those reporters seems to suffice Bettman just fine.
No, there will be no reprimanding of the Blackhawks patriarch for what Bettman termed “an outburst.”
In fact, Bettman aggressively downplayed the tone-deaf rant, which had none other than Wayne Gretzky questioning whether parents of 18-year-old draftees should feel comfortable sending their sons under his watch.
The commissioner was even empathetic to the point of view of Wirtz, who no doubt believes the uncomfortable topic should’ve vanished when he stroked a settlement cheque.
"I think what has happened with that franchise because of Kyle Beach, and with Kyle Beach -- for which we all agree was horrible, and they acknowledge as well -- I think this has been very emotional and frustrating and draining for the Blackhawks, and Rocky in particular," Bettman said.
“They're doing all the things to move forward. They're doing the work. The people who belong to be gone are gone. New people have been brought in. There's training. They're doing things above and beyond what we're doing at the league level. They're putting in a wellness department. They had answers for everything.”
In an effort to soothe the wound, Bettman went out of his way to speak to Wirtz’s questioners, Mark Lazerus and Phillip Thompson, individually Friday.
But why not take a hard line with Wirtz?
“We will continue as we do with all our clubs to hold them accountable, to do the work and make sure they're doing the right things,” Bettman said. “We would like all of our interactions among players, executives, coaches, managers, fans, the media -- we’d like them all to be friendly, cordial, professional. And overwhelmingly they are.
“But this one was a moment.”
Bettman had a moment, too.
One in which he could’ve characterized Wirtz’s “outburst” for what it really was: another ugly blotch on a sport that keeps preaching acceptance and openness yet gives us reasons to wonder if it’ll ever stop protecting the old guard.
Coyotes won’t lose (more) money by moving to a 5,000-seat arena
Bettman shot down the notion that the Arizona Coyotes would see a significant drop in earnings -- and thus weaken the grand hockey-related revenue pie -- by playing its games at Arizona State University, a facility that only holds 5,000 fans.
“In fact, in one projection we’ve done, we think it may be better,” Bettman said.
Turning a better buck at a small campus rink compared to at Gila River Arena? Sounds like a backhanded compliment.
In describing the Coyotes’ plight to find a home, Bettman also called out the Phoenix Suns for being unwilling to temporarily share their Footprint Center.
“My guess would be that they prefer the hockey team leave town,” Bettman said, “but there are plenty of hockey fans there."
Spinning positive, Bettman stuck to his guns -- as always -- and reiterated his belief that the NHL can thrive in the Phoenix market (reminding us it’s the city that birthed Auston Matthews) and actually sees the positives in the Coyotes indefinite downsize.
“I think they can create a terrific experience for people,” Bettman said.
Bettman pressures Canada to swing open the doors
While spending chunks of his presser on the defence (of Arizona, of Wirtz, of bailing on Beijing), Bettman went on the attack when it came to Canada and the tight restrictions on fan capacity and food and beverage service north of the border.
In a not-so-subtle play to pressure the Quebec government’s COVID policy, the commissioner threatened to take this summer’s 2022 NHL Draft away from the Bell Centre if fans are not permitted to attend on July 7.
“It has been extraordinarily painful to see [the Montreal Canadiens] play in an empty building, particularly, as I understand it, people are going to restaurants and bars,” Bettman said. “This is very frustrating for everybody.”
So, what’s the alternative?
Deputy commissioner Billy Daly said they’d likely go virtual again.
Bettman interjected: “No. I think we might go somewhere else.”
Bettman went so far as to bring up that Canadian teams have explored playing home games elsewhere to try and limit revue losses from these empty or half-empty barns.
“That's how troublesome and devastating it is for the clubs,” Bettman said.
While the commissioner does not anticipate weak attendance north of the border to significantly impact HRR, which is still tracking $5 billion this season, he is clearly fed up with how these gate issues are affecting individual clubs financially as well as the competitiveness and atmosphere for these games.
One-Timers: Sheldon Kennedy’s Respect Group will begin training with all 32 teams in March and The Respect Hockey Summit will have its first planning meeting on Feb. 10… Bettman described the Calgary Flames as “a free agent,” and reminded the city of Calgary that the expense of erecting a new arena is only rising. Renovating the Saddledome will become inevitable, he said, and won’t come cheap…. The 2023 Winter Classic returns to Fenway Park, where the Boston Bruins will host a yet-to-be-named opponent…. The 2023 All-Star Game will take place in South Florida…. The NHL and the PA met last week to discuss their plans for the next World Cup of Hockey, which will take place sometime before the 2026 Winter Games in Milan. Smart bet is 2024.