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NHL commissioner Gary Bettman shares lessons from the bubble

COVID-19 continues to force professional hockey to evolve in unexpected ways.

NHL commissioner Gary Bettman shares lessons from the bubble
[Source Images: Dave Sandford/NHLI via Getty Images; Flickr user Caleb Kimbrough]
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For Fast Company’Shape of Tomorrow series, we’re asking business leaders to share their inside perspective on how the COVID-19 era is transforming their industries. Here’s what’s been lost—and what could be gained—in the new world order.

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After suspending its 2019-2020 season on March 12, the National Hockey League restarted on August 12th with 24 teams bubbled in two Canadian cities—Edmonton (for the Western Conference) and Toronto (for the Eastern Conference) for 65 days. Teams were allowed to bring 31 players and as many as 52 staff members to their hub city hotel, and players underwent testing, temperature, and symptom checks daily. Ultimately, 33,000 tests had been administered, with no positives.

Fast Company spoke to NHL commissioner Gary Bettman about the lessons from this COVID-19-adapted season, how he’s approaching the next full season, and more.

Fast Company: What was it like for you when the pandemic hit? How did you know what course to follow?

Gary Bettman: From the outset, we wanted to be able to create the right fundamentals to be able to complete the 2019-2020 season. The focus was on learning as much as possible, and understanding—even creating—every conceivable option, then being agile and flexible enough organizationally to do it. First and foremost had to be the health and safety of our players, organizations, and the communities in which we were going to be playing.

I had to make sure [that everyone], whether it was the owners of the clubs, or the players association on behalf of the players, [was] prepared to buy in to what we believed we had to do. In addition to having a framework developed—by which we could ensure the competitive integrity of the competition, and protocols to deal with health and safety—we also dealt with the economics of the league, short- and long-term, by extending the collective bargaining agreement.

I made the decision at the last possible minute we could. ”

NHL commissioner Gary Bettman
To date, [it has played] out as well as we could have hoped. I think that’s a testament to the players being professionals on and off the ice. They came back in great shape, ready to play, and [adhered] to all the protocols to ensure everyone’s health and safety.

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This organization was also agile enough to do what had to be done in a short period of time. If you remember, we had some criticism after we announced the return to play format and the extension of the collective bargaining agreement, over the fact we didn’t announce where the hubs or bubbles would be. I kept watching the [infection rate] data and kept seeing it shift, and I didn’t want to make any decision prematurely. I made the decision at the last possible minute we could and still come back as we planned, in the most sensible places for us to be.

FC: How are you approaching the coming season? Do you feel better prepared to face the ongoing uncertainty now than you did seven months ago?

GB: The answer is yes, in terms of what we’ve learned, and our ability to execute under these circumstances. But you know, part of the reason we don’t know the exact timing for coming back for the 2020-2021 season is we don’t know what the COVID situation is going to be. I know there are a lot of experts concerned about a second wave and what that might mean. A great deal of the uncertainty relates to things beyond our control.

The one thing I’ve come to on my own, without even discussing it with the players association, is that we have no expectation that we can put the players in a bubble for an 82-game regular season and then playoffs. So, if we’re going to play a full regular season with playoffs, which is what we’d like to do, it has to be a different model than what we’ve used for the playoffs.

We understand that from the outset, which is why you can’t simply say, ‘Let’s pick a date and get it going again.’ That isn’t going to work.

FC: Was there an aspect of your business that was ripe for change, that the pandemic has merely accelerated?

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GB: I don’t know if it’s accelerated but it certainly has given us something to look at. Obviously we’re using more cameras in more positions, and we have the “luxury” of doing that [now] because we don’t have to worry about blocking anyone’s view from any seats. We’ve gotten to experiment with new camera angles. We had planned to use puck and player tracking in the playoffs, and with everything else going on, we didn’t have it in the opening rounds, but we did use it in the conference round and finals. It’s both for the creation of data and for broadcast enhancement, and everyone is experimenting with it. I wouldn’t say we’re close to showing its full capability, but it’s happening.

FC: Over the past few months, we’ve seen athletes and leagues speak out more than ever before, in particular on the issue of racism and inequality. The NHL faced some criticism for a delay in its reaction, particularly when the NBA, MLS and others were already sitting out games in protest. In June, nine former and current players formed the Hockey Diversity Alliance to work with the league on these issues, and in September, the league agreed to a series of measures recommended by the HDA. As a league, how do you navigate these topics and support your players?

GB: We’ve been doing a lot over the past few decades, but we’re doing more than we ever did before, spearheaded by senior vice-president Kim Davis, who’s been here for about three years. We need to do more, we need to do better. We need to make sure that at all levels, hockey has a welcoming, inclusive, and diverse environment. And that’s something we’re going to collaborate with lots of organizations on, and move forward together to make sure we’re better. Having our players engaged is an important element of that. We’re doing training, initiating a hotline, working with all levels, and have a number of councils like the Executive Inclusion Council, Fan Inclusion Council, and Player Inclusion Council. We want to make sure we’re holding ourselves accountable.

(Update: Since this interview, the Hockey Diversity Alliance announced a split from the NHL, citing a lack of support from the league. The NHL declined to comment.)


More from Fast Company’Shape of Tomorrow series:

  • The leaders of the Mayo Clinic, Cleveland Clinic, Doctors Without Borders, and more tell us how healthcare is being transformed by the COVID-19 pandemic.
  • Is advertising really dead? Here’s how the leaders of Droga5, TBWA, Wieden+Kennedy, and more are inching forward.
  • The retail Armageddon may have finally arrived. Here’s what top executives at Nike, Athleta, and more think it will take for stores and brands to make it through.
  • Insiders at Burning Man, Broadway, Meow Wolf, and more describe how the live events industry will emerge onto a new stage.
  • Top execs at the NBA, Major League Soccer, and more describe a touchless, waitless, and possibly even more connected and diverse future of sports.
  • Four experts on why performance reviews might be a thing of the past.
  • Watch out Amazon: Walmart could be the comeback story of the COVID-19 era. Here’s how brand perception is changing.
  • How the leaders of Barry’s, Orangetheory, Peloton, and more are bringing fitness classes into people’s homes and rethinking the studio experience entirely.

About the author

Jeff Beer is a staff editor at Fast Company, covering advertising, marketing, and brand creativity. He lives in Toronto.

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