Commentary

Bettman's talks with players 'respectful'

Updated: June 20, 2009, 10:19 PM ET
By Pierre LeBrun | ESPN.com

LAS VEGAS -- Gary Bettman survived his first address at the NHL Players' Association's annual players meetings. In fact, the gloves weren't even dropped.

"It was a big move on his part to come in here," said longtime Bettman foe Chris Chelios. "It was a respectful meeting. We weren't going to do anything that was unprofessional. It took a lot for him to go out of his way and address the players. I just wish we had 700 guys in here to listen to him."

The NHL commissioner, who was joined by NHL executive vice president Colin Campbell, was supposed to meet with the players for 45 minutes, but the session ended up running close to two hours. He addressed the group for 40 minutes and then sat back and took a series of questions from players, including Chelios, Robyn Regehr, Georges Laraque, Manny Malhotra and Kevin Weekes.

"I didn't keep count, but I would say that he probably faced in excess of 25 or 30 questions on a range of topics," said NHLPA executive director Paul Kelly. "They were quite articulate. The guys did a good job."

While the players were respectful, they asked Bettman hard questions, with subjects varying from the Phoenix situation to the salary cap, the NHL's U.S. TV deal, fighting's role in the game and drug testing.

"I think the players really appreciated that opportunity to talk to them," said Regehr, the player rep for the Calgary Flames.

"A lot of criticism flies towards Gary, but you can't knock him for being a bad businessman," said Buffalo Sabres goalie Ryan Miller, who must know Bettman better because of his work with the NHL's competition committee. "He's a very strong businessman, he's a smart man. It's good for guys to sit there and listen to his opinions and to learn. Of course, he has the interests of the NHL in mind and we have to have our best interests at heart.

"He's trying to get the best deal for his owners and we're trying to get the best deal for us. But guys being able to hear his opinion firsthand and being able to ask him some questions was definitely beneficial."

Bettman came armed with his own message to the players.

"I had made a list of about 10 issues that I wanted to talk about: state of the game, how the cap works with the escrow, fighting, drug testing, you know all the things that you would expect," Bettman told reporters before catching a flight back to New York. "And then we spent a fair amount taking questions, and I think it was a good, candid dialogue. I was grateful for the opportunity to spend time with the players and I hope they viewed it as constructive."

Hell would have frozen over before former NHLPA executive director Bob Goodenow would have ever let Bettman talk directly to the players. But times have changed, said the current union boss.

"In our business, we have to strike the balance between working together in a professional, constructive manner and digging in to represent our respective sides," said Kelly. "My view is that we should be talking to each other, we should be listening to each other.

"They have invited us to the GM meetings, to the board of governors' meetings, to the presidents' meetings. I thought it was important for Gary to come to the players' meetings to share with the players whatever he wished to share with them and also to respond to tough questions."

Veteran NHLer Mike Peca had a unique spin on Bettman's historical presence at the players' meetings.

"It's like a Democrat coming to the Republican convention and talking about what they feel about health care and everything else," said the Columbus Blue Jackets center. "We've got similar thoughts about what the game should do, we've got, I think, different philosophies on the best ways to achieve those things. But I think it's always healthy. It gave the opportunity for players to ask questions and get answers -- maybe not fully the answers that they'd like, but certainly the ability to ask those questions."

Bettman was asked by a player about the situation in Phoenix, where the Coyotes are being run by the league while awaiting a new owner.

"I explained exactly what happened and how we look at franchise issues and how this club wound up where it is and the fact we don't believe it should be in bankruptcy and the fact having rules and enforcing our rules and procedures is vitally important," Bettman said.

His answer on the Coyotes made sense to Peca, who understands the logic in trying to keep the NHL club in the desert.

"I actually share a lot of the feelings that the commissioner conveyed about the Phoenix situation," Peca told ESPN.com. "When you've got a kid that plays hockey and you know hockey's their life, you don't want to ever see that taken away. You've got to build roots in communities.

"It's easy to transplant a team into Toronto or Southern Ontario and it would succeed, but there's a growing base of kids that are playing hockey and in minor hockey systems that are thriving now in these communities that you don't want to rip away. It's a touchy thing and hopefully those organizations work out."

Pierre LeBrun covers the NHL for ESPN.com.

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