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Exclusive: NHL Commissioner Gary Bettman

On New Year's Day, the NHL is holding its "Winter Classic" outdoor game in the Windy City. We sat down with the Commish to talk weather conditions, league traditions, and, of course, Sean Avery. By Eric Alt


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After the success of last year's Winter Classic in Buffalo, a lot of places—like Yankee Stadium—were rumored to be next in line to host one. How did Chicago win out?
There was no shortage of interest from a host of markets and a host of facilities. We were intrigued by the uniqueness of Wrigley Field. It's a stadium that's almost a hundred years old. It's had every type of major event in it besides baseball except for a hockey game and so we figured we'd add to the long string of magic that Wrigley Field has. We did consider and it was rumored that we would go to Yankee Stadium and be the last game there, but the logistics involved and the conditions of the stadium about to be under construction made it impractical.

Was the unpredictable New York's weather a factor? It could be 35 degrees, could be 60 degrees…
Well, we didn't get to the point of having to decide whether or not we were worried. We have some variability in the weather. We can probably play up to 50, 55 degrees if there's no precipitation. It wouldn't be ideal, but the biggest concern for us is rain. Cold, snow, that's all good. We can deal with some degree of warmth to a point.

This year has the added benefit of not only having the Chicago Blackhawks play long-time rivals the Detroit Red Wings, it's also kind of symbolic in a way: You have this a Chicago team filled with young stars versus a veteran-loaded Detroit line-up…
Well, it's a variety of things. One: it's an original six matchup. Two: I think they've played each other more than any other teams in the NHL. And you have the defending Stanley Cup champs.

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Now, the Winter Classic isn't some kind of message that hockey fans are too pampered with their indoor seating?
Oh, certainly not. It's more about taking the game to its roots and its traditions and creating a unique event that all of our fans can celebrate. And doing it on a day which used to be dominated by college football, we were the dominant story last New Year's Day.

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The league seems to fight for recognition against baseball, football, and basketball—is it ultimately a cultural thing? Like soccer in Europe?
No. Well, first of all, I would beg to differ with you. We may not have the same fan base or television ratings as baseball or football but, the fact is, well an excess of 20 million people come to our games. If you accumulate all of our viewership for the course of a season on all television outlets it's probably about 200 million. We do quite well. We're about to set our fourth year in a row of attendance records.  We may not be as popular as football or baseball, but we've got what might be the best fans in all sports and we have a lot of them.

There have been reports coming out that the NHL is actually gaining on the NBA in U.S. popularity. Can you point to something that you feel may be a factor in that?
I have no idea if that's accurate or not. That's not something I really focus on. I measure us against ourselves and we continue to grow. Coming back from the year off [The 2005 lockout], we're about to have four years of record attendance and record revenues. And that's a testament to the strength of the game and the strength of our fans. We also have NHL.com, the NHL Network. We have a new system that enables all of our teams to be competitive. We've opened up the game with the way it's played, emphasized speed and skill. We have XM Serious. We have NHL Radio. We are available to our fans to connect to us in more ways than ever before. And the product on the ice has probably never been better.

The other great debate in hockey is fighting. Some people are for banning it, others say it's a necessary part of the game. How do you feel about it?
It's always been a part of the game.  It's an incidental part of the game and in increases and decreases based on how the game is being played. It's physical. Contact is encouraged. Players are skating at each other, running into each other. It's speeds up to 30 miles per hour and players are carrying sticks. It's nonstop, it's edgy, and it's emotional. So the fact that this is an incidental part of the game-I don't think it calls for debate to whether or not it should be in or out of the game. It's always been a part of the game.

The other big story has been, of course, Sean Avery and the infamous "sloppy seconds" comment. When did you hear his comments, and what was your initial reaction?
I saw it within an hour of it because, with this amazing technology world that we live in, I was able to see the clip. I was offended and I thought it was inappropriate.

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The league made its decision and suspended him for six games. Were you surprised that the Dallas Stars chose to extend that suspension and not have Avery back?
Now, that is something that I didn't focus on. I've really only thought about the league's response. I really haven't discussed Dallas' response with Dallas. From what I've read it's clear that both organizationally and the players on the team thought that, you know, everybody needed to move forward and in their separate ways. I think the club may have just been responding to the will of the players on the other team.

Right on the heels of the Avery incident came news that Claude Lemieux—long considered the most hated man in hockey before Avery came along—was planning a comeback at age 43. Guys hated him, but he never had an incident like this. What makes him different from a guy like Avery?
Being aggressive on the ice, even trash talking on the ice, is different than what you do publicly and the interaction that you have with our fans. I thought it was important in terms of the league response to make clear that we would not tolerate those types of comments or communication. It's not appropriate to those people who would have been offended: women, children, parents, and it's not anything representative of what our players do. And Sean had been, in the last year, repeatedly warned about his conduct. So when you look at the circumstances, we decided that it was appropriate to impose discipline and make clear what the league's view of this was.

It seems to be something that some people from the outside might not grasp right away: That respect is a huge thing in the league. Despite the fighting, there's always that level of respect.
There is, but again, this is even different than what takes place on the ice. This was intended to be a very public communication of something that should have never been said.

As someone whose primary concern is growing the league and getting the best product you can on the ice, is it frustrating to see star players dragging their feet until mid-season before signing contracts? Last year it was Anaheim's Scott Niedermayer and Teemu Selanne, this year it's Mats Sundin…Does it make it hard to sell the product when the marquee guys are sitting at home?
You know, I think that you have to look at the individual circumstances. This isn't something that happens a lot. Even three players in the past two years isn't an overwhelming number. So, whatever personal reasons they had-they were either undecided or not physically or mentally prepared to play an entire season. And you have to respect it and understand it. If this became a constant course of conduct for lots of players, we might have to take a look at it. But I don't think, in light of basically three players in the last two years and it's not a phenomenon we've really seen before-It's not something I'm really concerned about.

The other big event that's coming up is the All Star Game which honors the 100th anniversary of the Montreal Canadiens. Talk about league traditions…
This franchise is older than the league itself! The league played its first game this Friday in 1917 and the Canadiens go back prior to that. And this is a franchise that his been extraordinarily successful on the ice: 24 Stanley Cups. I think there's maybe one other franchise in the history of professional sports that has equaled this level of performance. And, perhaps most importantly, the club is beloved in Montreal. It is an institution. It is a fabric of the community.

Do you think there may be a new franchise in Canada in the near future?
We're not looking to relocate and we're not currently looking to expand. And, what I've repeatedly said, if we do either of those things, we're going to look at all of our options, both in Canada and in the United States.

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One more personal question for you now: When you come out at the end of every season and present the Stanley Cup to the winning team, a lot of fans take that opportunity to boo you. You always seem to handle it well, but does it ever bother you?
Not doing this job, no. You're always going to have critics. What I've always told people: If I take the ice and it's completely silent, then I'll know I'm in trouble. 

The 2009 Winter Classic airs live New Year's Day at 1:00 PM ET/12:00 PM CT on NBC