An Island Sports News Exclusive by Scott Harrigan
September 20, 2012, Victoria, BC (ISN) - Three days into the NHL lockout, ISN dug a little deeper into the issues behind the scenes and in an exclusive interview, ISN owner Scott Harrigan caught up with hockey legend Jim Devellano, Senior Vice President and Alternate Governor of the Detroit Red Wings to talk about the lockout, Gary Bettman and related issues.
Entering his 30th season with the Detroit Red Wings and his 45th overall in the National Hockey League, Jim Devellano continues to be a driving force behind the Red Wings, as well as a strong influence in the evolution and improvement of the league itself. He has been instrumental in many historical decisions in the National Hockey League including transforming the draft into an exciting fan-friendly event, and more recently, it was at Devellano's suggestion that the NHL instituted the new overtime format beginning with the 1999-2000 season that includes skating four aside as well as one point for each team following a five-minute overtime and an additional point if a team is victorious in overtime.
Devellano was candid and thorough in his discussion and answers below and we trust it will provide our readers with some inside perspective on the NHL lockout and issues behind it.
ISN: Jim, the common perception is that the NHL lockout is the fault of Gary Bettman. Can you shed some light on that?
"I think it should be clear up front that Gary Bettman works for the owners, not the players, and he is now entering his 20th year doing this. The owners direct him on what to do. I was at the meetings last week and I'm here to tell you when there was a call to vote for the lockout, it was 30 to NONE in favour by the owners. So I ask you Scott, why is that Gary Bettman's fault and not the owners?"
"I don't hear people saying bad things about Ed Snider in Philadelphia, or Mike Illitch in Detroit. It is always people jumping on Bettman and to be honest he doesn't care. Maybe that's what irks the fans is that he comes away looking like it doesn't bother him in the least. But I will tell you this Scott, it does bother him, he has said as much to me many times. He has said he wished he wasn't booed wherever he goes, or that every time he reads the papers he is slammed. It does bother him greatly. However he knows what his job is and he does it well."
"Another reason people come down hard on him is that a lot of folks truly believe he is the driving force behind all the decisions on how owners proceed. Some of this is true, but I can tell you he is directed by 30 separate business owners who all give him advice and he has to take all of this and come back to all of them with what makes the most sense as a group. Not an easy thing to do, but he does it and does it well."
"Don't forget too that these owners aren't dumb guys and they are very aggressive men who run multi-million and multi-billion dollar companies. They want results and don't want to hear excuses and complaints as to what their employees may want. When you have Jeremy Jacobs (Boston) or Illitch (Detroit) calling him looking for advice, he has to have an answer forthwith."
ISN: So what then is it that people don't like about him? Is it the the way he talks? The way he never seems to answer straight up questions with a straight up answer, always sidestepping around it? What do you see that we do not?
"I think he is battling what many people battle once they get in someone's "doghouse." There is a perception there, or misperception, of dislike that is tough to overcome. Plus it gets "parroted" across the country, meaning if one person says they dislike him, then their friends may dislike him too, without really knowing whether they do or not."
"I think perhaps in his early years as commissioner, he may of come across as arrogant and condescending, but probably not intentionally. For me, I deal with the media everyday, so I understand how he feels to be misquoted. They ask a lot of loaded questions and many of the same questions over and over in different ways, but he's a smart man who rolls with it and the bottom line is he only has to answer to the owners at the end of the day."
"And early on I would say he dressed down a few guys (reporters) and got their backs up. Of course that gets personal then and those people never live it down. If he does one interview with a guy and if that reporter felt slighted, he'll continue to write about it for months after the initial interview. Well, you do that a thousand times from city to city and you can see how it would spread."
"I just see too much of it and of course once it's on TV or in print, it must be correct, or so thinks the average person on the street. And in a lot of cases, the owners hold him back from doing heaps of interviews to clarify things and just prefer to let it blow over. I know it makes him the whipping boy for hockey fans, but that does not justify all the bad press."
"I think if you asked Gary if he regretted anything early on, well of course he would admit that he might have handled those early confrontations better, but I mean who hasn't made mistakes in their tenure?"
ISN: So you know the man well and I am guessing have had many meals over the years with him. Does he talk the same way over a quiet meal, or a drink, as he does on TV or radio, or is he more direct with his answers?
"The answer simply Scott is YES, he never seems to give you an answer to a question how you would like it to be, or think it should be answered. But don't mistake that for him being coy or unknowledgeable about the subject. He really is careful with everything he answers, right down to what to order off the menu."
"Let's take Ron McLean for instance on Hockey Night in Canada. He always asks agitated and sometimes exaggerated questions, not for the fans, or to get an answer, but to make what he thinks is good, bloody TV! So he thinks he's above the show, the game, and a lot of times has his own agenda. Well guys like Gary and I see through that as well as anybody would if they did the amount of interviews we have over the years and we tend to get our backs up. After all we are men too and we're not going to sit there and allow some guy to make us look like fools on national television."
"Again, a lot of these guys in the media today are looking out for their own popularity and to hell with the real story. And with Gary, like I said, you can dump as much crap on him as you want, but you're not going to rattle him. He is the strongest guy I know period and that is another reason that perhaps people do not like him."
ISN: OK moving forward, what's with all the money flying around before the lockout, when all the fans see is huge contracts to for example Sutter, Weber, Myers, Lucic? Let's take for example the offer sheet Philly proposed to Weber in the face of Nashville owner. What message are they trying to send ?
"Listen Scott, there is a hard cap in place as we all know. You can't go over that period. If Weber gets this much, then another player gets less. Now does that mean it's right for another team to do that? My answer is this: They (Philadelphia) operated within the CBA and it's totally legit to do. Having said that, I will tell you there is an unwritten rule that you don't do that, but they did, and just like everything else in life, some people are great to deal with, some aren't. If you are asking me if it's right, I would say there is, again, an unwritten rule...we all know it in the NHL, but not everyone follows it."
"Each owner / team has a decision as to how they want to pay their players, as long as they are under the cap. Now Donald Fehr would have you believe by getting rid of the cap, the owners would make more money and that the sky is the limit, but trust me Scott, the owners would lose their asses. We've tried that. It doesn't work. There is just too much cost involved in running and owning a team."
"It's very complicated and way too much for the average Joe to understand, but having said that, I will tell you this: The owners can basically be viewed as the Ranch, and the players, and me included, are the cattle. The owners own the Ranch and allow the players to eat there. That's the way its always been and that's the way it will be forever. And the owners simply aren't going to let a union push them around. It's not going to happen."
ISN: So what do you think is the solution?
"I'll make a suggestion Scott. Let the players take 43% and let the owners take 57%. Just reverse it from where it is now and let the owners run the rest of their business and manage their expenses. Now keep in mind this time around it's not just revenue sharing that is the issue. There are many, many more components at play here, from entry level contracts, years of service, insurance, etc. I mean a whole bucket load of disputes that are just as important for the owners to need to get a fair deal done."
"Yes, they are billionaires. Good on them, they deserve it, but they also make their employees millionaires. Not a bad trade off for a guy like Lucic getting what, 6 million dollars a year? I mean good on him too, but he should be grateful. Understand though that these players want for nothing...its first class this, first class that, meal allowances, travel money on the road, the whole shebang. Offer sheets don't hurt the players one bit."
ISN: Last thing Jimmy, any thoughts on players moving on and playing for the KHL or other European Leagues during the lockout?
"The players are doing what they have to do, but it's funny, you talk about solidarity and a handful have already bolted. You know who they are...like they need the money...yeah right! But I would caution them to be very careful not to get hurt because as of two days ago, we pulled all their league insurance (dental, medical, player) and all the benefits for each player, so if they get hurt, the NHL will not pay them one dime until they are cleared by league doctors and to the owner's satisfaction that the player is 100% fit and able to perform."
ISN: Do you think the fans will miss the NHL if it is suspended for any length of time?
"Remember it is just the NHL that is on strike, not any other league. Fans of the game should go see their AHL, ECHL or other minor pro team, or more importantly, to the best of your ability, support your local junior and minor hockey teams. Show these kids how much you really care for hockey. The NHL situation will get sorted out, but its complicated - I'm in the middle of it and its complicated for me too - and may take some time. Until then, go out and enjoy the game at the grass roots level and have some fun."
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