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 top prospect Ryan Merkley modeling his game after Erik Karlsson

Sharks top prospect Ryan Merkley modeling his game after Erik Karlsson

When it comes to the Sharks' top prospects, 19-year-old defenseman Ryan Merkley is in a tier unto himself.

San Jose selected Merkley with the No. 21 overall pick of the 2018 NHL Draft after he slipped due to character concerns. His talent, however, has never been in question and was too good to pass up.

Merkley impressed during his participation in the Sharks' rookie camp last September, and just completed what is likely to be his final season in junior hockey with the OHL's London Knights. With 15 goals and 76 points, he was the OHL's second-highest scoring defenseman, and his 61 assists ranked fourth-most in the entire league. London's season was brought to a premature conclusion due to the coronavirus pandemic, at which time the Knights sat in first place in their conference with a 45-15-2 record. San Jose's top prospect played a key role in their success.

"Ryan had a very good year," Sharks scouting director Doug Wilson Jr. said last week on a conference call (H/T The Athletic's Kevin Kurz). "In his career, every single season he scored more goals, he had more assists, he had more points and his plus-minus got better all four years in the OHL. I’m very excited about Ryan."

Always an offensive standout, Merkley is a great skater with advanced vision and tremendous passing ability. Though he has added more than 10 pounds in weight since the rookie camp, he's never going to be an imposing physical specimen, and his defense definitely is the area where he'll need to improve most. The Sharks, however, have someone specific in mind for him to learn from and model his game after.

"The biggest thing with [Merkley] was he’s never going to hit guys like Brent Burns or Radim Simek, he’s going to play defense more like Erik Karlsson," Wilson Jr. added. "If we can get him to use his stick to angle guys off in the neutral zone and then get the puck going north faster, that’s how he’s going to play defense. I think that’s what you saw this year with him."

Karlsson has long been regarded as one of the top defensemen in the NHL, and deservedly so. He signed an eight-year contract extension prior to the currently-paused season, so he should be around for quite a while. Merkley has a long way to go to get on Karlsson's level, but he already has been studying the former Norris Trophy winner for some time now.

"Yeah. He’s not the biggest of bodies, but he’s a great skater and closes up the gap well, makes that great first pass," Merkley told Kurz about Karlsson. "I do think there are some similarities and things I can look up to. Obviously, he’s one of the best in the world. So [Wilson Jr.] and [the Sharks staff] were big on me watching him and watching the way he defends. It’s just (about) growing, getting better and getting more reps."

In addition to Karlsson, Merkley has another Sharks' defenseman to learn from in Mario Ferraro. They roomed together during the rookie camp, and Merkley made sure to follow Ferraro's extremely successful rookie season.

"For sure, it was awesome for him. I was excited for Mario," Merkley said. "He got a good chunk of NHL games. He’s a workhorse. I’ve never seen anybody (take care of) the body and (do) what he does off the ice. It’s incredible. He never stops moving out there, his work ethic is incredible. He’ll play a long time in the league because there’s not many that take care of their body like that or work as hard as he does. It’s awesome, something I can look up to and follow."

[RELATED: What NHL's potential 24-team return could mean for Sharks]

Ferraro projects as a future top-pair defenseman and it wouldn't be surprising if he eventually was involved in the captaincy. The Sharks are hoping Merkley turns out just as well.

And, if they end up with another Karlsson ... that's the dream.

NHLPA OKs further talks with NHL on 24-team return; Sharks' season could end


NHLPA OKs further talks with NHL on 24-team return; Sharks' season could end

The NHL and the players' association took a big step toward returning to the ice, but it could mean the Sharks' 2019-20 season is over.

The NHLPA announced Friday night that it has "authorized further negotiations with the NHL" on a 24-team return to play format.

As the players' association noted, the sides still have more details to work out before the league officially can resume the season that was suspended in March because of the coronavirus pandemic.

While no specifics were provided on the teams that would be allowed to resume playing, the Sharks are not one of the 24 best teams in the NHL standings.

The Sharks possessed the worst record in the Western Conference (29-36-5; 63 points) and the third-worst record in the NHL when the season was suspended.

[RELATED: What went wrong for Sharks]

If this is how the Sharks' season concludes, it will put an end to a campaign in which the team entered with high expectations.

Last season, the Sharks made it to the Western Conference finals before losing to the eventual Stanley Cup champion St. Louis Blues.

The Sharks again were expected to contend for the Stanley Cup this season, but the departure of several veterans, combined with poor play early in the campaign, led to the firing of coach Peter DeBoer after 33 games. Bob Boughner took over as interim coach, but San Jose skated to just a 14-20-3 record under him.