Monday on George Stroumboulopoulos Tonight, the eponymous host interviewed the commissioner of the NHL Gary Bettman. For our American readers, George Stroumboulopoulos is the host of the only late night talk show in Canada. Think of him like a mix between Craig Ferguson, Diane Sawyer, and Jon Stewart.

His interview with Gary Bettman touched on a number of hot-button issues, particularly headshots, concussions, and homophobic slurs. Strombo also attempted to get a bit of a view into his personal life, asking Bettman about how it feels to get booed everywhere he goes (“I get booed?”) and how his family views his job (“The one rule I have is they’re not allowed to Google me.”).

The full interview can be watched on CBC’s website, as well as a clip embedded above on YouTube, but here are the highlights:

Bettman has a surprisingly good sense of humour about himself as well as some self-deprecation. Right from the opener, when he turns to see the frowning photo of himself on the screen in the background and asks “What’s with the smiley face?” Bettman manages to be disturbingly…disarming. In pre-show banter, Bettman responded to a question about being cheered in Winnipeg with “I wasn’t sure what it was at first.”

On concussions, Bettman at first showed a bit of defensiveness: “I don’t think we get enough credit…we’ve been dealing with concussions since 1997. We were the first sports league to really begin to address it with our players and doctors and trainers. We were the first sports league to have baseline testing, to have protocols for the diagnosis and return-to-play decisions.”

At the same time, he talked openly about how head contact is a part of the game: “Contact with the head is something you just can’t legislate out of the game when you’re encouraging physical contact. If it’s a full body check and you happen to have incidental head contact, if you start punishing that we’re going to start looking at a very different game.”

Strombo asks about whether the increased speed  of the NHL post-lockout would explain the increase in concussions. Bettman doesn’t think so: “There were concussions before the lockout, they weren’t diagnosed as well as they are now. Some of the increase that we’re seeing is because we’re doing a much better job of diagnosing and handling the medical aspects of a concussion.”

Bettman also had some interesting insight based on watching his grandson play hockey: “My 5-year-old grandson is playing hockey and he just got his first pair of shoulder pads. He put them on and he was very uncomfortable and he didn’t like them and he wanted them off until he started moving around and banging into things saying, ‘You know, this is pretty good.’ This is the beginning of understanding what the issue is.”

Most people seem to think that Bettman doesn’t like hockey or even hates hockey. That definitely doesn’t seem to be the case. He talks a lot about how he loves the game and that it’s a great game, but it really comes out when he talks about how his son and son-in-law both played high school hockey and that he loves going to his grandson’s hockey games and how his grandson “loves to score goals.” There’s some genuine affection for the game of hockey in what he says.

On Canada: “In the middle of February, I’ll go to Edmonton and Calgary just because it feels good to be there in the dead of winter.”

Seriously. He said that. Not even Albertans think it feels good to be in Edmonton and Calgary in the dead of winter.

Strombo also brought up the controversial topic of what Wayne Simmonds may or may not have said (but definitely did say) to Sean Avery: ”We didn’t have proof…you could think if you’re a lip reader that he said something, did he mutter it under his breath, nobody heard it…but you know what, we don’t punish on ‘we think he did it’ and we made clear that it’s unacceptable, we made clear to the world that we don’t tolerate and won’t tolerate it because it’s wrong.”

It’s a bit of a weak defence, but he follows it up with a great sound byte: ”We don’t micromanage trashtalk.”

Surprisingly, the most awkward part of the entire show comes after the interview when the Green Men show up for a terrible, terrible green room pun. Yeesh. Thankfully it was removed from the online version.

It’s an interesting interview, so completely unlike his often awkward interviews with another CBC personality, Ron Maclean. Bettman is currently receiving a brief respite from the vitriol he often faces from hockey fans, thanks to the NHL returning to Winnipeg and the good will created by the appointment of Brendan Shanahan and the increased openness on disciplinary matters. How long will that last?

Do you buy Gary Bettman’s explanations of concussions and headshots? Is his defence of the decision not to suspend Wayne Simmonds defensible? Does Gary Bettman look more like the Count, the Penguin, or the Hypnotoad?

These are tough questions and I encourage you to attempt to answer them in the comments section below.

Comments (6)

  1. I referee youth soccer. I take a certain amount of criticism simply because I have to make decisions regarding the play. Not everyone agrees with my decisions, sometimes because they may be wrong but mostly because those criticizing are biased. A parent’s son or daughter is on a team and calls against the team seem unjust, not because they are but because the parent has a perception that they will be. Coaches are competitive and winning is important so they don’t always see things the way they are. I understand and accept this and am as objective as possible. Having officiated a great many games, I really don’t care who wins. My job is to see that the players abide by the laws of the game and that no one gets hurt. The latter is not always possible because accidents do happen. My point is that given my position I can expect criticism and even to be blamed for unfortunate things that occur during a match.

    Gary Bettman is in a similar position; however, given he has much more power than I, he can expect even harsher criticism from those who feel unjustly dealt with. His decisions will never please everyone and, considering how much the human animal likes to denigrate others, especially those who have to make important decisions which are wide open to public scrutiny, one is not surprised at the vitriolic comments often direct his way. I don’t know if Mr. Bettman is the jerk so many would have us believe or a well intentioned human being trying his best to do a very difficult job. I’d like to believe the latter is true and commend your post which seems to support that hope, if only to indicate that the man has a sense of humor.

    Thanks for a different look at a much maligned person. We should spend time in his shoes before rendering harsh judgements. At the very least everyone should referee a soccer game some time.

    Cheers.

  2. correction: “directed his way.”

  3. “Does Gary Bettman look more like the Count, the Penguin, or the Hypnotoad?”

    The answer is none of the above. He looks like slick lawyer Maury Levy from The Wire.

  4. For all the stick he gets (some justified, some not) this was a pretty good interview from Bettman – I happen to agree with him on Simmonds; you need to be 100%. It’s totally unacceptable but you cannot suspend a guy on ‘we THINK he said something unacceptable’

    Strombo plays a big part in the ‘success’ of the interview – being UK based I am not so familiar with his work, but he seems much more at ease discussing these issues with Bettman than Ron MacLean (for example) ever does.

    It’s nice to get a glimpse in to what keeps his passion for the sport up as well, as all too often it is easy to see why people think he is some what ‘cold’ (no pun intended) towards the game/league

    • The issue with McLean is that he knows he’s playing to the CBC audience (the one that thinks his horrible puns are funny) and he gets viewed as a hero for standing up to the Evil American Lawyer Bettman as a result.

      Strombo’s show skews quite differently, so it’s no surprise that he took a different tact.

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