NEW YORK -- Housed on the 15th floor of a nondescript Manhattan office building, the NHL's headquarters are plush and stunningly modern. In the lobby, there are three flat-panel televisions with EA Sports' NHL 12 video game begging for someone to pick up the controller on the PlayStation 3 -- possibly set for a bad boy in town to meet with dean of discipline Brendan Shanahan.
Flanked by chief operating officer John Collins, the creative brains behind the Winter Classic, and deputy commissioner Bill Daly, the Philadelphia Daily News spent an hour on a recent Friday with commissioner Gary Bettman in an exclusive interview. They were seated in a swank conference room, with microphones at each of the 30 chairs -- one for each team in the league.
Here are five questions Bettman answered in the wide-ranging interview:
Q: You preside over a league that, other than Major League Baseball, probably sticks to its traditions more than any other. Looking at the popularity and draw of the Winter Classic today, it sounds like a silly question, but how much convincing did it take to get two teams to play outdoors?
A: In Year 1, it may have actually been a tough sell. The first time we did it, we had to ensure the participants that it was going to be all right. A lot of credit is due to the Buffalo Sabres and their president at the time, Larry Quinn. They were willing to go ahead with this and we were lucky to get the Pittsburgh Penguins to agree. There were a lot of uh-oh moments in the first game. But this was an event that the players enjoyed being a part of it; other players around the league suddenly wanted to join in.
Q: How much do you think an event like the Winter Classic has helped branch out to other sports fans, who might not be hockey fans?
A: I think for every fan, it's a genuine amount of fascination. You want to see how a baseball stadium is turned into a hockey rink, how two teams will handle the elements of playing outdoors, who will win, and how the fans are reacting. They say that sports is the ultimate reality television show. For us, sports outside when we're typically an indoor sport, it adds even another element of intrigue. Our special-events people do a great job at dressing up the stadium to look like hockey. It's all part of a big event. It not only appeals to a hockey fan, but a casual fan as well.
Q: The Flyers will now have participated in this marquee event twice in the five years of its existence. What has the response been from other teams? One locale that was mentioned was Beaver Stadium at Penn State. Was there ever any serious consideration there?
A: All 30 teams would love to participate. All 30 teams would love to host the event, even if it is not geographically feasible with the weather. Through the course of discussions, probably every conceivable option has likely been raised, even if it's discussed for two seconds and kicked aside. Or sometimes, it's 20 seconds, or sometimes, there are more legs to something. Because of what it does for the host market, we're pretty much going to stay close to a team's market. Instead of being absolutely in the middle of nowhere, it doesn't make sense when we think we can be connected. I'm not talking about a stadium that's not downtown. But not being in either Pittsburgh or Philadelphia, I'm not sure it makes a whole lot of sense -- at this point. As this thing goes on, and more and more of a foundation is built, my guess is John (Collins) will be pushing the boundaries to go further and further out there. I'm not sure what that means yet.
(Collins joked about Hawaii. "We'll call it the Hula Bowl," he said. The NHL said it would not consider using a synthetic surface to allow an outdoor game in any climate for a regular-season game. "The authenticity of this is important," Bettman said.)
Q: When you pick a market like Philadelphia, where the weather can be unpredictable in the winter, how do you ensure that the conditions are decent enough to hold a game? What kind of contingency plans are in place?
A: That's the thing. When you're dealing with weather, you can't ensure working conditions. But if the conditions aren't decent enough, then we're going to have to adjust around it. Last year, we had to move the game (in Pittsburgh) to the evening because the conditions weren't good enough. Again, this kind of goes to why it is more of a reality show. We have our own meteorologist on site. And we're going to have to make some judgments if the weather becomes a factor. I think that's part of the charm.
(A similar contingency plan exists by which the NHL would move the game to a prime-time slot on NBC if it cannot be played at the original 1 o'clock start. There is also a follow-up rain date, as well as an indoor date, should the game require one).
Q: In nearly every major professional sports league -- the NFL, NBA, MLB and even MLS -- their signature television event of the season also involves their championship. The NHL and NASCAR, with the Daytona 500, are unique in this aspect. Could you ever have imagined that your signature, made-for-TV event would not involve the Stanley Cup?
A: Actually, our signature event is still the Stanley Cup. This is our signature regular-season event. But the Stanley Cup is still our signature event. And I dare say that there's a regular-season game in any sport that is comparable to the Winter Classic. But let's not lose sight of the prize.