WINNIPEG — “We have nothing to announce.”
NHL commissioner Gary Bettman wanted to get out in front of any possible speculation as he and deputy commissioner Bill Daly were in Winnipeg on Tuesday for a routine visit.
On the heels of the NHL’s most recent Global Series matchup in Finland featuring the Colorado Avalanche and Columbus Blue Jackets in Tampere, it was natural to wonder if the Winnipeg Jets could be heading overseas at some point in the not-so-distant future.
“The answer to your question is, sure, why not? But we haven’t yet finalized plans for next season and beyond,” said Bettman. “But now that we’re past the pandemic, we’re looking forward to getting back to a more regular schedule. And Winnipeg always represents the league well. So, obviously, as we figure out a rotation and what makes sense, certainly they would be included.”
Whenever the Jets are asked to participate again, don’t be surprised if it’s in Denmark, home of winger Nikolaj Ehlers.
The Jets have sold out only one game since the pandemic started and the decline in attendance has been a concern for an organization that plays in the second smallest arena in the NHL (behind Mullett Arena in Tempe, Ariz. — more on that situation later).
It should be noted that the Jets are far from the only team dealing with a drop in attendance coming out of the pandemic, and Bettman didn’t seem overly concerned.
“Let me respond to that in a couple ways. One, I don’t think there’s an attendance issue. We’re coming out of COVID,” said Bettman. “Around the edges, some teams are seeing a little bit of softness. Maybe it’s people’s reluctance to still go to crowds. Maybe it’s the economy. Maybe their routines have changed a little bit. And maybe the fact that not everybody’s coming into the city to work anymore, which is a factor as well.
“For a team to be successful, any team in any market needs broad support from the business community and from the fans. I believe this building can be and will be full again. And to the extent that the fans who came more frequently have had either distractions or issues, we’re hoping they’ll be back soon. I wouldn’t suggest that there’s a crisis here. I believe, of the seven Canadian teams, the Jets have either the second-lowest or third-lowest ticket price. So, it’s not about pricing anybody out. The best seats seem to sell. I think we’re just going through a period of adjustment.”
A good chunk of the 24 minutes of this question-and-answer session was spent discussing the Boston Bruins‘ recent signing and subsequent parting of ways with defenceman Mitchell Miller.
Daly said there was nothing new to report and Bettman wasn’t about to speculate on whether or not there would be a grievance filed by the NHLPA should Miller be placed on waivers with the purpose of contract termination.
Bettman made it abundantly clear he didn’t feel it was necessary to share any personal thoughts about what was going through his mind when he was told the Bruins had signed Miller.
“What goes through my mind probably isn’t relevant or probably right for public consumption,” said Bettman, who was asked a follow-up question on the topic, noting his position as the commissioner. “Right. But some things I like to keep to myself. Bill has told them that when we heard that they decided to sign him that he wouldn’t be eligible to play currently or until he, ultimately, wouldn’t be able to play in the NHL until we cleared him.”
Asked how the Miller situation might differ from that of Montreal Canadiens defence prospect Logan Mailloux, who was charged in Sweden for sending sexually explicit photos without the consent of his partner before the NHL Draft, Daly provided a bit of a revelation.
“I think we’ve been clear with Logan Mailloux. He is not eligible to play in our league now, either,” said Daly. “So, Montreal has made a decision with respect to Logan. Boston made a decision with respect to Mitchell Miller.”
“But neither player would be eligible without clearing with us at the time their ability and eligibility to play in the league,” added Bettman. “And both clubs were advised about that.”
Can anything be done to ensure this type of thing doesn’t happen again?
“Well, clubs are, in the first instance, free to sign eligible players in terms of age and what their status is from a contractual standpoint,” said Bettman. “We, then, in the appropriate circumstance, have the right to decide who is eligible to play in the league. I think there’s a little bit of confusion between signing a contract and who is eligible to play in the league. It’s totally different.”
Both Bettman and Daly said there was nothing the league could do to prevent the Bruins from signing the player, citing the terms of the collective bargaining agreement.
“Obviously, the Bruins changed their mind,” said Daly. “They were made aware in advance what our position was with respect to Mitchell Miller. They probably felt they had some level of confidence that they’d be able to establish a reason why Mitchell Miller should be able to play in the league. And, ultimately, the reaction or whatever combination of factors caused them to change their mind.”
As for how the situation will be resolved, neither Bettman nor Daly had any interest in speculating what the next moves might be.
“Well, there’s a couple of things we’ve discussed with them with respect to what their rights are. They’re dealing with the situation,” said Daly. “I don’t have any update with respect to where that sits. There are certain rights.”
When the sale of the Ottawa Senators and interest of Canadian actor Ryan Reynolds was brought up, Bettman offered a funny line.
“He was quite articulate on The Tonight Show last night with Jimmy Fallon that he would be very interested and that he needs either a sugar mommy or a sugar daddy with a lot of money to help him,” said Bettman. “I think those were his exact words that I’m quoting. Listen, anything that engages the fan base, that brings a lot of attention to the franchise or the team is a plus. He’s a very popular and well-respected person.”
Bettman then offered a quick update on the process and offered an assurance that will surely be music to the ears of the folks in Ottawa.
“The process is being run by an investment banking firm that has been retained for that purpose. We are kept abreast. Obviously, we have to vet people who may be interested when they get to that,” said Bettman. “The formal process hasn’t begun yet and it will. One thing that has been made perfectly clear, although you didn’t ask in your question, is that the club has made perfectly clear that any sale will be dependent on the club staying in Ottawa and hopefully moving downtown to LeBreton Flats.”
As for the early response to the Coyotes playing in Mullett Arena, the new college arena that was built for the Arizona State University Sun Devils, Bettman focused on the fan experience and expressed further hope for the market if the new arena proposal achieves community support.
“The reaction has been phenomenal. People are saying, players are saying it’s fun to play there, the ice is great. But everybody should understand this is temporary,” said Bettman. “There was no other place for the Coyotes to play. The plan is to have a new arena in Tempe, which is the right place in that market. Greater Phoenix Arizona is a terrific market. Among other things, ask Auston Matthews. And so it’s temporary, and in the interim we’ll get through there. People are having a good time with it, both the players and the fans.
“We’re not the first league, and this is not the first time for us to be playing in a temporary facility. The NFL did it playing in small soccer stadiums while they were waiting for L.A. to get ready. Sometimes you do that when you want to try and stick by a market.”
Bettman conceded there have been numerous challenges for the Arizona market since the original Jets departed in 1996.
“There have been difficult, and at times, unfortunate and unlucky confluence of events,” he said. “We wished things would have been easier, but at the end of the day, you deal with what you deal with. We think with Alex Meruelo now as the owner, his commitment and his resources makes us quite comfortable, particularly with the city of Tempe on June 2 approving the next step that had to be done, in terms of the project. We’re on the right track. I think once this building development in Tempe would be completed, there would never be an issue with respect to the Coyotes.”
Bettman was also asked why the NHL didn’t work as hard to keep a team here in Manitoba as they have in Arizona when the Jets first left.
“That’s a great question,” he said, “and the answer is this will be a history lesson, as some of you may have still been in school or younger — I’ve been doing this a long time — there was no prospect of a new building here and nobody wanted to own the team any longer, including, if I recall correctly, and I could be off on this because it’s been quite a while, the province owned a piece of the club and the province was no longer interested in owning it.
“So, when you have a situation when nobody wants to own a club in a particular situation, there’s nothing there.”