Monday, December 1, 2008

Spending Time with the Commissioner 12-1-08

by Dee Karl, edited by
Tom Chiesa

I pulled into the drive- way at 8:35 pm on Thursday. My husband was at the kitchen door before I even got out of the car.

"Gary Bettman called. He wanted to see if you got home all right."

I stopped in my tracks wondering if he was kidding or not. Considering the true gentleman that Mr. Bettman is, it wouldn’t have surprised me if he did.

"Very funny Dan!" I said as I walked passed him in the kitchen.

"Okay, but your mother called. So, how’d it go?" he asked while eating cookies and trying to look as if he really wasn’t interested.

"I’m opening that champagne in the fridge. THAT’S how it went." I was still smiling from ear to ear. After all, this was a meeting that I had been trying to make happen since January 8th, but the timing was never right. Well, Gary Bettman probably IS the hardest working human in sports. I don’t know how he keeps up the pace. I’m certain he must have enough frequent-flier miles to go to Tibet and back for free… a few times.

I was invited to visit the NHL store on November 20th while Mr. Bettman was airing his NHL Hour show on XM 204. Frank Brown, Group VP of Communications, had arranged for me to visit the XM studio and then spend 15 minutes with the Commissioner in the NHL offices. I was thrilled --until about 3:30 pm on Thursday, when I began to panic.

While my friend Wendy and I were walking toward the NHL store, I text messaged one of my MSM (Main Stream Media) friends for a little support and encouragement. He didn’t disappoint me. "Relax. Be yourself. You’ll do GREAT," he responded.

It became my silent mantra as Mr. Brown escorted me up the stairs and into the XM studio. By the time he opened the studio door for me I had to add the words, "And don’t faint."

I was introduced to both show producers and Mr. Bettman’s co-host, legendary Bill Clement. Again I told myself, "please don’t faint." It seems I am somewhat opposite of most NHL fans. I’m completely jaded when it comes to being introduced to hockey players; I’m a complete mess when it comes to NHL executives.

I was once in a hallway with Lou Lamoriello and went totally mute. During a Maple Leafs practice at the Coliseum I hid from Cliff Fletcher like a five-year-old. If I ever meet Brian Burke, I’ll probably genuflect. It didn’t surprise me that Thursday, in the studio, I turned into a mime, afraid to speak while they were on air. Producer Gregg Baldinger offered me one of the chairs and a headset. Getting up onto the chair was like climbing Everest and at first the headset volume almost made my ears bleed and just about blew me off the stool. He immediately adjusted the volume for me and showed me where the knob was.

Stan Fischler was the phone interview guest during the last segment of the show. I watched the technical workings of the broadcast, as well as the way Mr. Bettman was handling his host duties. He was so relaxed; it seemed as if he had been doing this for years. This is an outlet where his personality really shows through. He smiles, he jokes; he makes off-the-cuff quips and can just be himself. This is a far contrast from the standard press conferences that we have all witnessed. Put a cigarette in one hand and a coffee mug in the other and he could be any veteran NY DJ.

The producers counted down to the end of the show, and back down the stairs and out into the cold for a 40 foot walk to the NHL office building we went. I wish my commute to work was this easy!

After we got past an expressionless female security guard at the front desk, I was given my temporary photo ID badge and was escorted to the elevator. I didn’t have the nerve to tell Mr. Brown that I wasn’t thrilled with elevators. When I worked on the 27th floor at CBS, I would take the stairs. I heard that voice in my head again, ("Relax!") and soon enough the elevator doors opened and we had arrived at the executive suites.

When I exited the elevator, I was in awe. To the left was an NHL logo the size of a Volvo suspended in mid air. It was black and glass and simply breathtaking. "Oh my God, that’s beautiful." I uttered as we walked briskly passed an administrator's office.

"Can I get you anything?" Mr. Bettman called to me from down the hallway. Without thinking, I answered "Water would be wonderful." as I knew my nerves would make cotton-mouth inevitable. As I was escorted into the executive office I realized I had just asked the Commissioner of the NHL to bring me water. The professional secretary in me cringed. But this is the type of man he actually is. He is unabashedly normal and exceptionally well mannered -- a real gentleman in every sense of the word.

The Commissioner’s office is spectacular and, needless to say, about the size of my entire house, and beautifully appointed with multiple seating areas, numerous TV’s and two walls of windows looking out over Manhattan. Had I been able to follow that "relax" mantra, I would have been able to take in all the details of this wonderful space, but sadly, I didn’t. (I supposedly didn’t notice a table with ice and a mini Zamboni.)

"Gary has a brand new grandchild," Frank Brown announced. I offered my congratulations and promised I would be quick. Mr. Bettman graciously told me not to rush and to take my time, but I had all my questions in front of me and knew I could do this in the 15 minutes originally allotted. (The tape ran for 17:45, and that included taking a photo and going back down the elevator.)

So here is the Q&A portion of my day. Nothing Earth-shattering, of course. After all, I was the one asking the questions.

To start, I thanked Mr. Bettman for the unprecedented access he has offered the fans with his NHL Hour radio show. I don’t believe there is another sport that allows fans access to its highest ranking official. And as such, I’ve noticed that he is extremely accommodating to the fans that wait, sometimes for 45 minutes, in order to speak with him. I asked if he has ever been in trouble with his producers for being so open and generous.

"It’s not a matter of getting in trouble; it’s a matter of talking to people who are interested in talking to you. If people are going to take the time to call in and hold on and think about things they want to discuss, to me that’s what the show is all about. It’s that type of direct communication. And the fans that call in are interesting. That’s all we can ask for."

The internet has become a large part of the NHL’s marketing strategy, so I asked how the multi-media features have been worked into their market plans.

"In this digital age, this era of new technology, we have an ability to give more content and more access to the game than was ever available before. So it lets people connect with what they want when they want to. You’re no longer dependent on the next day’s newspaper or the 11 o’clock news to find out what happened or what’s going on. The stories you can get are now virtually limitless and the access is unprecedented and it’s all part of giving our fans what they want, when they want, how they want it."

Truthfully, is there a group of fans more digitally-connected than NHL fans? It’s the lack of adequate main-stream coverage which has spawned this cult of bloggers and message board junkies. The NHL has even developed their own internet community called NHL Connect, which is based off their main website. There, fans can create blogs, upload photos and videos, create fan groups and, now, even link their blogs to the top stories on the website.

Frank Brown, who is playing a large part in the digital connectivity of the NHL and its fans said "We have great hopes for NHL Connect. The NHL community is extremely passionate about the game, it has opinions and information to share, and NHL Connect helps promote the dialogue."

I asked about the guidelines the NHL developed last year for those clubs who had decided to credential bloggers. Mr. Bettman has been very supportive of the program, so I asked him if they were going to expand those guidelines to see if more teams would buy into the idea. He immediately turned the question over to Mr. Brown who answered "It’s worked very, very well. It can’t be a one-size-fits-all strategy. You have to leave it to club discretion, so there are cases such as the Islanders and Washington who have been very welcoming and embracing and there are others who say ‘we have issues that we are not comfortable with blogging on a formal basis,’ but they still may accommodate a practice or something of that nature."

Mr. Bettman added "I think to sum it up in a few sentences; this is an area of game coverage and connectivity that is evolving and will continue to evolve. I think it has become a fact of life, and that’s a good thing, but exactly how it works--everyone is trying to figure out."

Truer words were never spoken as bloggers themselves are evolving into multi-media moguls daily. Can you truly call Eklund, Puck Daddy or Chris Botta simply a "blogger" any more now that they have all transcended from the world of Internet ramblings to actual print mediums and radio air waves? I don’t think so.

So turning my thoughts to more "main stream" media, I asked Mr. Bettman about the NHL media training course they provide for the players. I wondered if blogger access was included, but it isn’t that type of course.

"From the Club and Player standpoint, it’s more about making sure the players, particularly the younger players just coming into the league, are comfortable being in a position where they are being asked questions that will be attributed to them and will be carried everywhere. In the era of the internet, anything you say can be reproduced countless times in countless places. And so we just want to make sure that the players have the tools and are completely comfortable with being in that environment."

Considering the attention the young prospects receive, I also found out that for the past two seasons the NHL has conducted an Orientation Seminar for top prospects a day or two before each Entry Draft, and one of the most important components of the orientation is a media training session the group receives from one of the top media trainers in the field. A small number of top prospects also receive one-on-one training. It can make a big difference when you have someone like Josh Bailey, a prospect that was pounced on by the New York media as soon as he arrived. I’m sure the experience is a little overwhelming for a 19-year-old from a small town, even if he has been planning on being a hockey player all his life.

Since the beginning of the season, there has been much discussion regarding ice conditions in various arenas. And while it is important to the quality and outcome of a game, it is also important for the safety of the players. I asked Mr. Bettman if anything can be done to insure the quality of the ice in buildings that were not club owned.

"It’s a constant project for us. Dan Craig, who we hired, is 'Ice Guru'. He consults with all the clubs and buildings. We’ve put in a variety of procedures: the removal of snow during TV time outs, the fact that coming back for the second and third period, players can’t skate around, so the ice doesn’t get chopped up. We are constantly monitoring building conditions. The fact that whatever is done on the ice promotionally during intermissions has to be done at the twelve minute mark so there is enough time to flood the ice and let it set. So we’re constantly looking for things to do to improve the ice. The fact of the matter is, our clubs play in very busy buildings. And if the only thing that ever went on in those buildings was hockey games, the ice would be better. But when there’s a concert or a basketball game the night before, or if it’s 90 degrees outside and 80 percent humidity and the system is being over taxed, the ice will pay a price. So we try to do the best we can while understanding that it’s not possible in these multi-use buildings to always have perfect ice."

I asked about arenas that have perpetual problems with ice conditions. "If it’s that perpetually bad, that means that something else is going on there. Having said that, I remember when Dallas was in the Stanley Cup final in the old building, we brought in additional supplemental dehumidifiers and air conditioning units. We do a variety of things. There have been teams who have retrofitted their buildings at considerable expense to try and improve it. The issue is not the expenditure of money or a lack of trying; the issue really comes down to these multi-use buildings and what is possible under the circumstances that go into creating ice."

The Commissioner then threw out something I hadn't heard before.

"You know, in some places the water composition dictates exactly how good or bad the ice is. And the water in all of our markets isn’t the same." Such a simple fact that I had never considered. But then again, I was never a chemistry major.

Having just seen a news feature about synthetic ice being laid on the roof of a Manhattan museum, I asked if the NHL had been investigating the possibility of using a synthetic surface.

"You know, I get suggestions and proposals all the time. And based on anything I’ve seen, the synthetic ice may start out smooth but it will NEVER be as good as the real thing." I tend to agree.

I wonder if part of the planned renovation for the Islanders arena will include updating the ice making equipment. I’ll have to check.

While discussing the proposed developments of the Lighthouse project, which Mr. Bettman has been very vocal about lately, I asked if there was anything the league could say to the Town Of Hempstead to help bolster the case that completion of The Lighthouse project is necessary as well as financially beneficial to them.

"When you look at Denver, and what has happened in LoDo*; when you look at the Chinatown area around the Verizon center in Washington; when you look at the arena district in Columbus; when you look at what’s happening in Newark; when you look at LA Live and what is happening with Staples in that area; where else--Glendale in Phoenix, a new arena can serve as a catalyst to develop an area. So I think that for Nassau County creating this type of hub can be very exciting and a real economic engine. Having said all that, the Islanders desperately need a new building and there is no dispute about that. This can’t continue forever like this. And the reality is they are going to have to have a new building. The longer it takes the more expensive it gets and the more difficult it gets. So hopefully all the approvals will be forthcoming and things can get moving--finally."

Maybe we should send the T.O.H. officials some statistical information on those above mentioned areas that have improved in both the financial aspect and resident quality of life. Maybe then, they’d move a little more quickly.

There are things you may NOT know about our Commissioner, such as he did play hockey in college.

"I played recreationally. I took it up later in life; played for fun in college. It always continued to amaze me based on my deficiencies as a player as to how truly remarkable and gifted our players really are." I asked him what player was the most influential in sparking his interest in the sport.

"I’ve always been a Gordie Howe fan. When you think of the generations he spanned, all that he accomplished, how skilled and tough he really was--he’s truly one for the ages."

When I asked if there were any players today who were close to emulating what Howe brought to the game, the Commissioner smiled at me, "I never try to categorize current players."

This must be part of the "media training," knowing what question may get you in hot water later.

Another thing you may not know is that the NHL has a "Green" initiative going not only on a League level, but are also leaning on player involvement. It’s the little things that can have the greatest impact. Less paper, more recycling, and a partnership with GreenLife, a carbon consulting company, which is working on a league wide environmental audit. The NHL plans to use the All-Star Game as a backdrop for a "green symposium" that will bring together owners, players, facilities managers and league officials to look at ways they all can be more environmentally friendly. So, do your part, fans.

While being the Commissioner of the NHL is a very difficult and sometimes thankless job, I asked Mr. Bettman what aspect of his job he enjoys the most.

"What I enjoy the most is giving the Stanley Cup. It continues to be a thrill and an honor. What I like about the job on a day-to-day basis is that no two days are the same. And every day is new and interesting and stimulating. Some days a little too stimulating."

I was at the end of my list of questions when I decided to address my own agenda. As I was the first female hockey blogger in the NYI Blog Box experiment, I am always curious as to how the NHL is doing marketing to the female audience. Personally, I believe that it’s the female demographic that is growing faster than any other.

Check the newest NHL catalog. There are pages of RBK "Fashion Jerseys" cut for women. The new Silver Ice jerseys are absolutely beautiful. (Hint, hint. Is my husband reading this? But I can't get it with the Islanders logo.)

I asked for the actual demographic numbers and received this information. "In 2004, women made up 35.9% of our adult US fan base. They now make up 36.4%, so the number continues to increase and the demand for gender-specific items has increased as well. Women who prefer to wear the traditional items are, of course, more than welcome to continue to wear them; but we have been responsive, as well, to requests for a women's line that features a more-tailored, more proportionate look in jerseys and t-shirts as well as a greater variety of colors, fashion wear and accessories. These items have proven quite popular."

I know. My closet overfloweth.

As the NHL has already achieved what can be considered "competitive balance," I asked Mr. Bettman if he felt that the league could ever achieve the same ‘gender’ balance within the hierarchy of the league.

"I don’t think there is a glass ceiling. I think that, by definition men and boys tend to be more interested in the psychic income you get from being in this industry than women and girls. In other words, for whatever reason, our sport (and most sports) tends to attract the male gender more than the female. I’m not saying it’s good or bad, it’s just been the case. But I think to the extent you’re a hard worker, you’re professional about what you do--you’re smart. The opportunities are limitless."

Thank you Mr. Bettman. My résumé is in the mail.

*Note: LoDo is the affectionate name that Denverites call the Lower Downtown Historic District and mixed-use neighborhood. LoDo, the city's birthplace, is considered the most exciting, fun and hip part of the city of Denver, and I had to look this up on the 'net. Thank you Google. And thank you, Mr. Brown, for all your time and assistance.


B.D. Gallof said...

GREAT JOB!!!!! Awesome read, Dee.

NickD at said...

Terrific job, Dee. I'm sure you'll be in contact with him again.

islesblogger said...

Definitely a great job Dee!

"I wonder if part of the planned renovation for the Islanders arena will include updating the ice making equipment. I’ll have to check."

You can research this further, but I did hear they are upgrading the refrigeration equipment - of course they would need to as they are lowering the ice surface....

So a short answer is YES. Of course, I would know that.

Islanders Outsider said...

Way to go, Dee! You certainly made the most of those 15 minutes and put the whole thing together so nicely.

McCauley's Blog said...

Incredible Dee!!!

Travelchic59 said...

I really enjoyed reading this, Dee. I see you survived your trip into the city. You should try coming in more often, you'll find it's not so bad. Take it from someone who commutes every day.

IQ said...

After so many see the day finally come is awesome. Your devotion to your blog is paying off and your going to be on to Bigger and Better things!
Love the way Uncle Gary takes care of you! He's a smart man!

and like i said earlier-- OK now what?

not much left on that checklist now is there...

ok ok i got a call into Blake!

~tight hugs and kisses~

Brian from Massapequa said...

Very nice job Dee. I'm going to add one comment that does not come from any inside info, but makes imminent sense to me. Regarding the ice conditions at NVMC, as far as I know the renovation plans include lowering the ice level to fit luxury boxes lower to the ice level. I assume updates to the "ice system" will be done then and not before. Well I just nitced that islesblogger just aid as much, but I'll post anyway. Once again, great job!!!

Anonymous said...

Awesome job Dee! That must've been so cool. I love the way you descibe things... I can so invision things mentally after reading your posts... if that makes sense. Haha.

Gaspo said...

Excellent job, Dee. Good stuff. See you in the box soon!

Bill Strong said...

GREAT job, Dee. I really enjoyed reading this. Fantastic job.

19 Isle in NJ 22 said...

Great piece there Dee ... a proud moment. You covered all bases.

That part about the ice was great too .. I always noticed certain rinks worn down my blades more than others.... that explains a lot. Just thought I played harder when they dulled quicker ... LOL!