It’s been two weeks since the event, but I didn’t want my copious note-taking to be in vain. As a result of my year’s service as a member of the Philadelphia Flyers Fan Advisory Board, I was invited to breakfast and panel with NHL Commissioner Gary Bettman. I chose as my companion a Tweep and delightful person LauraTheActiveStick, who also has a blog at theactivestick.wordpress.com. Of course, I added a little extra stress to our morning by having her meet me at the wrong Sheraton (Society Hill) in Philadelphia. But after a Keystone Cops-y taxi trip, we arrived at the correct Sheraton (Downtown).
The Commish didn’t arrive for breakfast until it was nearly over, having spent, I surmise, that hour with prospects and their families at the cleverly named “Prospects and Families” breakfast. But after he stopped in to look at the crispy bacon, we (a few Flyers season ticket holders and quite a few men in suits who didn’t look like anyone I’d ever seen before, so we don’t think they were media and it seems unlikely they were front office people, who who likely would have been busy in draft war rooms, so we’ll assume they were representatives of marketing partners and advertisers) all decamped to the panel across the hall.
The panel comprised Commissioner Bettman, new Flyers President Paul Holmgren, Flyers Chief Operating Officer Shawn Tilger, Flyers Captain Claude Giroux, and Flyers starting goaltender Steve Mason. No questions were taken but an NHL communications staffer served to tee up topics.
The commissioner, to my surprise, is charming, funny, and self-effacing. I didn’t get a chance to talk to him one-on-one, but I hope he would not have remembered me from my telling him in passing on West 53rd street during the most recent lockout that I hated him for destroying my game. At the time, the look of stunned dismay on his clearly exhausted face was satisfying. After spending time with him on draft day, I’m very sorry about that.
State of the Game
Mr. Bettman started off talking about the state of the game. He believes the NHL has never been better, with the best athletes, the best game, the best competition. Never faster or more entertaining. Arenas were at 96% capacity during the regular season and more-than 100% capacity for the playoffs. And because of the NBC deal, for the first time every playoff game was shown on national television.
The league is also available on more digital platforms and continuously working to develop more and better use of new technologies to watch and follow the game. He believes current ways to access the game are the right foundations; the system is fair and makes sense, enabling fans to connect in more ways.
At this point, newly appointed Flyers President and former General Manager Paul Holmgren spoke. He began by saying “In my mind the league is where it is today because of Commissioner Bettman’s leadership.” He also discussed the potential for a future Winter Classic involving the Flyers. Because the Flyers have been involved in two Classics so far, to the delight of the players, fans, and organization, and the Flyers “would absolutely love to do it again.” Mr. Bettman interjected that the initial plan was not to have a Winter Classic every year, but the league believes it has turned out to be a great annual event.
The Flyers organization is focused on generating a new generation of fans. Coming up to the team’s fiftieth anniversary in 2017, a focus of customer service is to grow the sport, increase consumption (through television, radio, attendance), invest time and resources in youth hockey. The Flyers never have to sell passion to knowledgeable fans that the organization respects. Although there is often the idea that there are 19,000 Flyers fans, the team realizes that most tickets are shared between multiple fans. This year the Flyers had 820,000 fans at home games, clearly not all repeat customers.
The organization is begging the league for another Winter Classic, stadium games, and an All-Star game.
As the goalie representative on the panel, Steve Mason was asked to address the shootout. Although not his favorite thing, he recognizes that the fans seem to love it, although he has mixed emotions himself. But fans look forward to the atmosphere.
Claude Giroux added that the team has a love/hate relationship with the shootout. If you win it’s the greatest idea ever, but when you lose…
But there is change in the air. Commissioner Bettman brought up that although the shootout ha been a success, they would like more games to end at least in overtime without a shootout being necessary. In order to improve the number of overtimes ending in a winner they will be switching ends at the beginning of overtime, resulting in a long change on shifts. The hope is that the increase in goals scored that is achieved in second periods with the long change will be reflected in overtime scoring. Also, instead of a 1-minute break between regulation and overtime, there will be a 4 ½-minute break for a dry scrape to improve ice conditions for overtime.
However, to make the shootout even more interesting if it is necessary, coaches will not have to submit a list of shooters. They’ll have the flexibility to use individual players more than once in the shootout. They also want to get rid of the spinorama, which is not a real in-game hockey move, but the NHLPA has not agreed to that. The NHL Players’ Association says that they are unanimously against getting rid of the spinorama, but a goalie on the committee said, “I don’t remember voting on that.”
Commissioner Bettman said they wouldn’t touch a shootout for the playoffs and Holmgren, in his best intimidator attitude, said “There will never be shootouts in the playoffs.” It felt like a very “over my dead body” statement. And he’s a lot bigger than Bettman.
Claude Giroux spoke about what the day is like for the kids in that other breakfast. He said draft day is really long when you are a prospect. You can’t sleep the night before. The first round of the draft is at night and all day there is nothing to do.
In his draft in 2006, Giroux had talked to both Montreal and the New York Rangers and hoped to be picked 20th or 21st. But he felt he was borderline and was worried. When those two teams did not pick him, he turned to his dad and said he’d be taken on day two. But then the Flyers came up at 22 and Bobby Clarke forgot his name when the selection was made. They went to dinner after the draft.
Commissioner Bettman interjected, “There’s nothing borderline about you.” Then he added that there is a screen with the player the team has informed the league it will draft right on the podium, so for Clarke to forget Giroux’s name was pretty odd.
Steve Mason’s experience was a bit different. “I was going somewhere between grocery worker and 7th round, so I wasn’t at the draft.” He found out on the computer that he was a third-round pick, but it was exciting nonetheless.
According to Bettman, there is always a next season and the draft is the annual rite of renewal. It is always coming up. He is bemused by the fact that 15,000 people show up to watch which is in essence a business meeting. Still, it is nice to feel the embrace of a community.
Paul Holmgren shared that he was drafted by the Flyers in 1975 and didn’t know until about a week later. There had been no contact because he’d already signed with the rival World Hockey Association.
As for the draft that night, Shawn Tilger encouraged everyone to take in the whole event both live and using interactive technology. It is a made for television event, so the digital access will enhance the live experience.
As a final note on the draft from the commissioner, a laughing Bettman said, “It won’t hurt my feelings if you don’t boo me tonight. Tell your friends.”
Commissioner Bettman said that the league is in joint consultation with the players’ association on resurrecting the World Cup of Hockey and that it is an important venture.
In his opinion, the Flyers as an organization represent everything good, compelling, and important about Philadelphia. The heart and soul leadership have propelled the Flyers to their position in the community.
Shawn Tilger said that Philadelphia was recently dubbed “The New Hockeytown” and it is a distinction the city has earned.
And finally, Steve Mason said that the past year has been the best year of his life and part of that is because of the fans of Philadelphia.
[Note: If you heard about the draft, you know the Commissioner was roundly booed, as he is in every public appearance in every city. But unlike early in his tenure, he's learned to roll with it. He was relaxed and funny and I really believe he meant it when he said, "I love your passion."]