NEW YORK — With the third lockout on his watch finally nearing its end, Gary Bettman appeared a humble and apologetic man.
The NHL commissioner told fans, players and sponsors that he was sorry the start of the season was delayed by more than three months.
The apology came in the form of an unexpected “personal statement” delivered to reporters Wednesday after he announced that owners had unanimously voted in favour of ratifying the new collective bargaining agreement.
“To the players who were very clear they wanted to be on the ice and not negotiating labour contracts, to our partners who support the league financially and personally, and most importantly to our fans, who love and have missed NHL hockey, I’m sorry,” said Bettman. “I know that an explanation or an apology will not erase the hard feelings that have built up over the past few months but I owe you an apology nevertheless.”
It was the first public sign the NHL was ready to start rebuilding an imagine tarnished by more labour disputes over the last 20 years than any of the other North American pro sports leagues.
This was Bettman as he’s rarely seen. Standing behind a podium in the same hotel where he had a notorious blow-up during a press conference last month, the contrite commissioner took his medicine. It might have been his only choice.
Bettman was publicly labelled everything from a “cancer” to an “idiot” by players during the course of negotiations that stretched over six months.
“As commissioner of the National Hockey League, it sometimes falls upon me to make tough decisions that disappoint and occasionally anger players and fans,” he said.
“This was a long and extremely difficult negotiation — one that took a lot longer than anybody wanted. I know it caused frustration, disappointment and even suffering to a lot of people who have supported the National Hockey League in many different ways.”
The players aren’t expected to start their own ratification vote until Friday. It will be conducted electronically over two days and needs majority support from the roughly 740 union members to pass.
If all goes to plan, the process would be completed by Saturday and training camps would open around the league on Sunday.
Bettman wouldn’t give details about what the league would do to make it up to the fans, but said there are plans in the works. Out of respect for the player vote, he wouldn’t answer any specific questions about the labour process either.
“In the end, neither side got everything it wanted and everyone lost in the short term,” said Bettman. “But the NHL gained a long-term agreement that’s good for players and good for teams, and should guarantee the future success of NHL hockey for many years to come. It will help the game to grow, ensuring greater economic stability for all of our teams.”
There have been a number of calls for Bettman’s job since the tentative deal was reached on Sunday morning. But the commissioner made it clear that he intends to celebrate his 20th anniversary in the role on Feb. 1 and remain in office long beyond that.
As for the various reports, Bettman called them “nothing more than unfounded speculation.”
“I’m looking forward to continuing to grow this game both on and off the ice as we have over the last 20 years,” he said. “I think the opportunities are great and I’m excited to be a part of them.”
Perhaps to try and stem the tide, the owners gave Bettman and deputy commissioner Bill Daly a vote of confidence on Wednesday. Jeremy Jacobs, chairman of the NHL’s board of governors, made a rare public statement prior to Bettman’s appearance at the podium.
“Gary and Bill have the complete and unconditional support of the board as well as our gratitude,” said Jacobs.
The NHL is targeting a 48-game season beginning Jan. 19, which leaves no time for teams to squeeze in any exhibition games. The schedule is expected to be released in the coming days.
There was a feeling of relief among governors in the days after the sport avoided cancelling another season because of a labour dispute.
“It’s a great deal for hockey,” said Vancouver Canucks GM Mike Gillis. “It’s great that we’re back playing.”
Added Tampa Bay Lightning GM Steve Yzerman: “I think it was extremely important to get a deal done and not miss the entire season.”
A 48-game schedule was played following the 1994-95 NHL lockout and that allowed for a balanced intraconference schedule in what was then a 26-team league.
It’s going to be a little more complicated this time around.
The league is planning to have teams play three games against the 10 opponents within the same conference but outside their division. They will then have an unbalanced schedule against division rivals, with five games coming against two teams and four against the two others, according to a source.
The CBA process will continue behind the scenes even after the season gets underway. The league and NHLPA have agreed to meet over 10 consecutive days in February to finish off a document that will total several hundred pages once it is finished.
Bettman is confident this deal will bring extended labour peace.
“It’s a 10-year agreement, one that will stand the test of time with a system where all teams can be competitive and have a chance to make the playoffs and even win the Stanley Cup,” he said. “It guarantees that our attention from now on will stay where it belongs. On the ice.”