A couple of months ago – I was talking to a friend of mine from the Booster Club. His name is Martin Valk. It was between periods at an Islander game. I was working the blog box that night, and I stopped by the table, to say hi to my wife. Marty was there, to buy his 50/50 tickets, and he asked me if I had a minute.
Of course I did, and he explained to me that he went to a function with his Law School colleagues, and he won a lunch for four with NHL Commissioner Gary Bettman. He was going to take his son Jacob, who was soon to be having his Bar Mitzvah. He asked if I would like to join him.
Wow! “Of course!”, I replied.
We had to wait until the season was over and the awards/draft was completed, for obvious reasons, so yesterday, on June 29th, the lunch happened at the Princeton Club, in Manhattan.
Let’s put it this way — this is not a slice of pizza and a Diet Coke at the counter.
The Princeton Club is exclusive place to meet, with such an exquisite ambiance and sophistication that you would expect from an “Ivy League” organization. I met Marty and Jacob, and soon after, Marty’s friend, Joe Catalano arrived. If you know me, I am not one that is quiet and unwilling to talk, but with the combination of the heat from my walk from where I dropped my car off to the club, along with having to be “dressed” for the occasion, I was a little quiet.
When Mr. Bettman shook my hand, he right away said, “Gary Harding, Islander Season Ticket Holder, and was a President of the Booster Club.” That floored me, but thinking about it, he (Bettman) was a lawyer himself, so I can understand that he had to have done a little research. He mentioned that Joe was a Ranger season ticket holder for many years as well.
If you saw the draft, you know that Mr. Bettman was having difficulties speaking. With the whirlwind schedule from the awarding of the Cup, to the awards in Vegas, to the draft in LA, Gary was struggling, but it did not stop him.
We also had a Professor Gerber with us, who set up this lunch, and was Marty’s law professor when he was in school. Gary and Professor Gerber were associates and school mates, and they had some interesting stories that “broke the ice” on the lunch.
As I stated about the Princeton Club, this place was first class all the way. The lunch was fantastic, and I was definitely on my best behavior (no food hits – which I always get when I am in a nervous situation).
During the meal, Joe, Marty, Jacob and myself talked not only about hockey, but we got into other venues (example – Gary mentioned that he has been to the new Giants/Jets stadium and says it is nice, but can see how it cost $1.5 billion; we talked a little baseball, Jacob’s Bar Mitzvah, and a little of what we do among other things; of course when I mentioned that I worked for Avis/Budget Group, he mentioned that I did not work for the official car rental supplier for the NHL).
But Gary – did you talk about the NHL?
I had a lot of questions in my head, but I only really asked one thing; as to be honest, I was an invited guest, and felt it was not the right place to slap all sort of questions out. But the one thing I really wanted to ask had to do with the officiating. I was not wanting to ‘rip’ the officials, because in my opinion, I think that they in the overall scheme of things, do a good job. But I really wondered how the league determines who gets to do the playoffs. Mr. Bettman mentioned that not every game, but a number of games during the season, a senior NHL official grades the officials on how they officiate the game. I would then assume, that the best move on to the second season. However, he mentioned that the war room is still watching every game, so the guys in Toronto are seeing how good the officiating is at every game.
We talked about the Winter Classic, and how the setting for a New York, New York game would not be good in the national TV ratings. Getting Crosby and Ovechkin in this game will help get the most people watching. We also discussed the TV situation, and Gary mentioned that the ratings for Game 6 were the best in 36 years for a national broadcast in the States. The Coyote ownership situation was discussed, and the Islander situation was explained to Jacob.
Gary was gracious, quite honest and forthright, and in some cases, showed a great sense of humor. You can see the lawyer in him come out, being very quick with responses. The thing that I like about him, is that he will not shun away from a difficult question or statement. You see that in the XM show that he does every Thursday. If he does not know about something, he will get back; and you definitely hear on the show, that he does. It is “cool” for fans to boo him when he is at an arena, or at the draft. It is “done” with all of the Commissioners, to be honest, but I think that is not only disrespectful, but downright stupid. Although I respect the other three, it seems that Gary is so far out there, accessible, and cares about the game so much, and wants nothing more to see it succeed and thrive.
When we shook hands, as he had to leave for a meeting back at the NHL offices, I came away with sense of that he was not just there to deal with a “auction winner”. He truly seemed to enjoy himself, and was interested in what we had to say. I left the Princeton Club not only full from a great meal (Poached Salmon – in case you were curious), but rather comfortable from a great afternoon.
Again – I want to thank Marty for thinking of me to be one of his guests for this function. It was a once in a lifetime opportunity that I cherished and will not soon forget.
Now – as it is June 30th – the next time I will be talking hockey, I hope it will be about the new players that will be wearing Islander Orange and Blue.