Gary Bettman Q&A: NHL commissioner on Sharks' stability, labor talks

Gary Bettman Q&A: NHL commissioner on Sharks' stability, labor talks

SAN JOSE -- Since Gary Bettman took over as NHL commissioner in 1993, only two other cities have hosted an NHL All-Star Game as frequently as San Jose.

Montreal had it just days into Bettman's tenure, and Los Angeles hosted in 2002 and 2017. This weekend, the Sharks joined that exclusive club.

"San Jose and the Sharks have been incredible hosts," Bettman said Friday. "It's a thrill to be a part of this."

NBC Sports California spoke with Bettman on a variety of other topics in a quick 1-on-1 interview ahead of the NHL All-Star Skills Competition. Here's the full conversation with Bettman at SAP Center. 

NBC Sports California: The NHL is getting a team in Seattle in the very near future [the 2021-22 season]. How has San Jose served as a catalyst for the growth of hockey on the West Coast?

When the Sharks first became a part of the scene in San Jose, hockey was in its infancy in Northern California. And by being a part of the community, and by being a franchise with stability and continuous presence both on and off the ice, a lot of fans emerged. Hockey became a part of the scene. Grassroots programs developed, and the Sharks are as much a fixture in San Jose as anything else.

Part of the reason the Sharks are such a fixture is because of players like Joe Thornton. How much has he meant to the game of hockey?

Joe has been an incredible force in the NHL throughout his wonderful career. San Jose fans have been lucky to be able to see him and appreciate him for as long as they have. But it also starts one step removed: [Sharks general manager] Doug Wilson has been a constant for virtually the entire history of this franchise, and I think the stability he provides for this team on the ice is one of the key ingredients for success.

What can you say about Wilson’s impact in San Jose -- first on the ice as a player, and now as an executive?

Doug couldn’t be a better representative of our game on and off the ice. As an executive, he is a consummate professional, and he is somebody who I’ve been dealing with since my earliest days in the NHL. He’s honorable, he has integrity, he’s smart and he’s passionate about the game.

What do you remember about some of those early interactions?

Well, he was president of the players’ association then. So, not as good as our later interactions (laughs).

Now looking ahead to next year, you mentioned on Friday the NHL will play in Germany next year. The Sharks are owned by Hasso Plattner, who’s known around Germany. How much of a possibility are the Sharks?

We’re not talking about dates or teams yet in Europe, but there will be some games. So, stay tuned.

Along those lines and looking forward: The Sharks have been at SAP Center for 25 years, but there could be a lot of changes coming to the area surrounding the arena. What are the NHL’s thoughts on those possible changes?

Well, this arena has been a vital part of the emergence of San Jose as a major city. The city wasn’t nearly as large or as vibrant when the Sharks first got here at SAP Center as it is now, and we all know how important an arena and a team are to the economics of a community, to the soul and vibrancy of a community.

As things continue to develop and San Jose grows, when focus is placed upon projects like BART [expanding into San Jose] or even Google moving to the area, I hope everything’s done to protect the ease of access to this building. Because it would really be a shame for the Sharks, this arena, and most importantly the fans if it didn’t work as well as it’s been working.

You mentioned your history with Doug Wilson --

My tongue was in my cheek!

Fair enough. But there was a very optimistic tone on Friday from you and NHLPA special assistant Mathieu Schneider. For Sharks fans who are looking toward the future of the CBA, what’s your message to them about things moving forward?

Well, first of all, the simplest thing I can say is we’re not looking for a fight. We’d like long-term stability, and we think the game has never been in better shape. We want to take where we are, and use it as an opportunity to continue to grow the game.

How much of that growth do you want to continue here and on the West Coast? We’re starting to see more and more players from these areas, like Auston Matthews.

I want it everywhere.

More on the 2019 NHL All-Star Game

Four takeaways from Bettman's Friday press conference
How Matthews pulled off an All-Star Marleau tribute
All-Stars in awe of Coyne Schofield in fastest skater event
Stanley Cup keeper shares travels, San Jose experience
Watch Burns, Pavelski's sons team up on sweet goal

Sharks emphasizing importance of first goal in desire to pile up wins

Sharks emphasizing importance of first goal in desire to pile up wins

SAN JOSE -- Jumping out to an early lead doesn't always guarantee a team will win, but that's been the theme for the Sharks through the first couple of weeks of the regular season. 

And after scoring the first goal of a game for the first time this season against the Flames -- and going on to win, no less -- San Jose is looking to establish that early-game presence more often. 

"It was nice to score first for once and feel good," Logan Couture said without hesitation Sunday night after the Sharks skated away with a 3-1 victory over Calgary. "We built off the third period in the Chicago game (last Thursday) which is what we really wanted to do."

Kevin Labanc agreed. "That was a big lead for us and we've got to start every game like that. That's got to be our focus."

Per Hockey-Reference, San Jose went 31-8-5 during the 2018-19 season when they scored the first goal, and outscored opponents 102-85 in first periods according to Statspass. The Sharks then averaged 22:41 minutes of lead time per game last year, per, en route to winning 46 games and coming in second place in the Pacific Division.

While history doesn't always repeat itself, it's evident the Sharks have a better chance of winning if they can get on the scoreboard first, instead of battling back from behind. As the first five games of this season have shown, rallying out of an early hole can be challenging -- and resulted in four straight losses to begin the campaign.

"We've been talking about the last five games about coming (from) behind," Tomas Hertl said. "It costs you a lot of energy and it's hard."

This isn't to say San Jose can't win a game coming from behind. Per, the Sharks won 20 regular-season games last year in which they didn't score first. But with the new season comes new challenges, and as of late, San Jose is giving up too many breakaways and prime chances. With wrinkles in the Sharks' defense still being ironed out, they should be looking to get on the scoreboard first as frequently as possible.

"I still think we could be a little bit better," Hertl said after Sunday's win. "This was one of our better games but we have to work."

Surely, the Sharks want that work to carry over into their next game -- a Wednesday night matchup against the Hurricanes. In addition to being tied for second place in the Eastern Conference, Carolina is 4-0-0 this season when scoring the first goal. 

San Jose has the advantage of getting practice time in before Wednesday's game, whereas the Hurricanes will be playing the tail end of a back-to-back -- just like the Flames were the last time the Sharks took the ice. 

[RELATED: How Sorensen, Simek are progressing in return to Sharks]

If the Sharks can score the first goal again on Wednesday, they'll greatly improve their chances of notching a three-game win streak.

How Sharks' Marcus Sorensen, Radim Simek are progressing from injuries

How Sharks' Marcus Sorensen, Radim Simek are progressing from injuries

The Sharks haven't lost since adding Patrick Marleau to their lineup last Thursday, and they could get another boost on the wing Wednesday. 

Marcus Sorensen fully participated in Tuesday's practice, skating with Joe Thornton and Barclay Goodrow on San Jose's third line, according to reporters in attendance. Sorensen could play Wednesday night against the surging Carolina Hurricanes. 

Sorensen missed the Sharks' last three games with an upper-body injury. The Swedish winger left San Jose's Oct. 5 loss to the Anaheim Ducks in the second period after crashing into the end boards. 

The 27-year-old scored a career-high 30 points (17 goals, 13 assists) last season, primarily playing alongside veteran center Joe Thornton on the Sharks' third line. The pair played fewer than 250 5-on-5 minutes without one another, and San Jose outscored opponents 36-30 with the two on the ice, according to Natural Stat Trick. 

The Sharks have only scored 13 goals in six games this season, so Sorensen's return -- on top of Marleau's integration into the lineup -- should help San Jose's offense. The team also entered Tuesday tied for fifth in goals against (22), but it might be a little longer before they receive a corresponding boost on the blue line. 

[RELATED: Marleau thanks Sharks fans for such a warm welcome back]

Defenseman Radim Simek, who remains on injured reserve and has yet to return to the Sharks lineup after undergoing knee surgery in March, skated after practice with fellow injured blue-liner Dalton Prout on Tuesday. General manager Doug Wilson told reporters via a team spokesperson that Simek has not experienced a setback, but is not practicing with the team in order to focus on the areas he needs to address in his rehab. It's possible Simek rejoins the team ahead of their five-game road trip beginning in Buffalo against the Sabres on Oct. 22.

The Sharks compiled a 29-9-3 record with Simek in the lineup last season, and San Jose allowed lower rates of shot attempts, shots and chances with the Czech defenseman on the ice at 5-on-5 than when he wasn't. Including the playoffs and the start of this season, the Sharks are just 15-21-1 in Simek's absence.