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EXCLUSIVE: NHL Commissioner Gary Bettman sits down with Mile High Hockey

Bettman talks Colorado hockey, the excitement surrounding the Avalanche and the Altitude TV-cable dispute

2020 NHL Stadium Series Press Conference Photo by Michael Martin/NHLI via Getty Images

COLORADO SPRINGS, Colo. — It was 83 degrees in Denver on October 9th. By the morning of October 10th, Denver’s first snowfall of the season had ripped through town while thermometers in the Mile High City read 19 degrees, a record-breaking temperature drop in just a matter of hours. And it couldn’t have been more perfect.

Why? Well Colorado’s winter welcomed NHL Commissioner Gary Bettman to town on Oct. 10, as he visited Air Force Academy in Colorado Springs, home of this season’s Stadium Series, to host the event’s preview press conference live on NHL Network.

It really couldn’t have been more ideal weather, given the nature of what the Stadium Series event is supposed to represent. Along with the NHL’s Winter Classic, the outdoor game was started as an homage to hockey’s history — a game that has been historically played in the frigid outdoors on the frozen ponds of the north.

It just wouldn’t have felt the same if the press conference was held in 83-degree weather. It was supposed to be snowy and cold and Colorado certainly did not disappoint. The state’s wintry weather set the stage for the 2020 Stadium Series and all but rolled out the red carpet for February’s outdoor prime-time event.

It was ideal conditions at Falcon Stadium on the date of the press conference
Scott MacDonald / Mile High Hockey

As perfect as the weather was, getting to the press event was less than ideal, however.

As I white-knuckled my way down the white, snow-blanketed byway of Interstate 25 South, I, along with the other daring drivers on the road, navigated the hiemal highway, maneuvering around countless collisions, spun-around vehicles blocking lanes of traffic and uncountable car pileups. A typical hour-and-some-change jaunt on I-25 South from my house in Denver to the neighboring Colorado Springs turned into a three-plus hour crawl to Falcon Stadium. Thankfully I left early.

All of this in pursuit of press coverage of quite possibly the most polarizing person in the National Hockey League. In any event, I made it, and judging by the press-packed suite level at Falcon Stadium, most of my media counterparts did as well. Woeful weather be damned.

Following the scrum that engulfed the NHL Commissioner following his press conference speech, I was able to pull Bettman aside for a quick five minute conversation after receiving approval from his PR director.

Avoiding any sort of hard-hitting line of questioning, I had a casual conversation with Bettman about the excitement surrounding the Colorado Avalanche, the relationship with the Colorado Eagles, the disastrous dispute between Altitude TV and the big three cable companies and weather small talk, among other things.

As I began our conversation, a fellow reporter and I broke the news to the Commissioner that due to the cruddy conditions and a multi-vehicle crash, that I-25 Northbound was shutdown. That is to say, for the time being, Bettman was stuck with all of us in Colorado Springs.

“Well, I assume at some point they’re going to reopen it,” Bettman said with the optimism that only an out-of-towner unfamiliar with navigating Colorado’s highway system in the snow could. “I don’t freak out easily. I do enough travelling — I’ve seen it all.

“But in any event, what can I do for you besides give you a weather forecast?” Bettman continued snidely, but in a light-hearted way.

I opened up my line of questioning by stating the obvious facts. This is the second time in the Stadium Series’ six-season history that the Avs have hosted the outdoor contest. Only half of the NHL teams have had the honor to play in one, and only two other states have had the honor of hosting the event more than once. I asked Commissioner Bettman about this and how easy it is to choose and market a team as exciting and up-and-coming as the Colorado Avalanche.

2020 NHL Stadium Series Press Conference
L.A. Kings President Luc Robitaille (left) and Avalanche GM Joe Sakic (right) pose with NHL Commissioner Gary Bettman after the 2020 Stadium Series press conference event.
Photo by Michael Martin/NHLI via Getty Images

“How easy or not it is to market the Avalanche, you should ask the Avalanche,” Bettman said. “But the fact is, they have an exciting young team, their prospects for success are terrific. I think the fans should be excited, and I think the rest of the hockey world is watching the development of this team with interest. I think last year was a breakthrough year for them and people are anticipating great things this season.”

While it’s all fine and well that the Avalanche has hosted two outdoor games, which is a fairly large-scale spectacle of prime-time proportions, knowing he couldn’t give me an answer to the question I was about to ask, I still queried what was looming on everyone’s minds: When will the Avs get the chance to play in a Winter Classic game?

“It’s an outdoor game!” Bettman said of the Avs playing in the Stadium Series contest, as if to say ‘is this outdoor game not good enough for you?’

“See this is the point — as soon as we give a game, we get asked for another one,” Bettman continued. “We’ll see. The list of teams and locations requesting outdoor games is very long. So, the fact that we’re back here again is a testament to the Avalanche and Colorado and to the Air Force Academy. Don’t push us out too far. We can only focus so far out at one time.”

Fair enough, Commissioner. He’s right, though. The fact that Colorado has now appeared in — and hosted, no less — an outdoor event twice now is a true testament to the team and the state.

“There’s no shortage of interest,” Bettman bellowed on. “...Which creates a dilemma for us — it’s a good dilemma — but there is no shortage of interest. Let me phrase that a little differently: there’s no shortage of demand from our clubs.”

Colorado should consider itself lucky to have had the opportunity twice now. And if I were a betting man, I’d assume the Avalanche are only a few seasons away from a Winter Classic showcase, given the team continues its exciting upward trend.

On the note of hockey success in the state of Colorado, I prodded for his thoughts on the AHL team up I-25 North.

“Hockey needs to thrive at all levels,” said Bettman of the Colorado Eagles jumping up to the AHL and serving as the Avalanche’s immediate affiliate. “And to the extent that our teams have relationships with other levels of hockey, it needs to work well for all the parties involved. This change looks, at least from a practical standpoint, like it’s going to be really good.”

Hockey is certainly thriving in the Centennial State. To summarize our sit-down conversation: Colorado is quickly becoming a prosperous place for the sport. Up and down the thriving “hockey highway” of I-25 — which ironically happened to be closed on the day Bettman was in town — the game is leaving its mark on just about every off-ramp. From Loveland to Denver to now Colorado Springs, hockey is proving to be alive and well across the state. And Bettman and the NHL knows it, too — that’s why they’re here (again) after all.

But like I-25 northbound on this particular day, there is one thing stopping the traffic of local Colorado hockey-lovers.

I wanted to get the Commissioner’s opinion on the dispute between Altitude TV and the big three cable companies, which is blocking regional viewers from the ability to watch the Avalanche on its local market cable station. Before Bettman was ushered away by his PR director and into his blacked-out SUV waiting outside, I asked the Commissioner about his thoughts on the on-going cable quarrel.

“I think it’s terribly unfortunate for the fans that they’ve been cut off from the access. The fact that so many of the providers have done it at once certainly gets your attention,” Bettman said rather openly. “But to hold the fans hostage, particularly when the Avalanche are on the verge of going through a wonderful season, is really a shame. The subscribers to the various outlets should make their feelings known.”

While there’s really nothing Bettman and the NHL can do about the unfortunate situation happening with Colorado cable, rest assured, he is on our side. Like the Commissioner said, the only thing we can do is just keep making our feelings known. There is strength in numbers, after all.

Get your tickets to the 2020 Stadium Series on sale now. And if we’re lucky, the weather on Feb. 15, the date of the outdoor clash between the Avalanche and the L.A. Kings, will mimic that of the weather when the Commissioner was in town.

Bundle up and please drive safe.