Goodell has been harshly criticized for being too lenient or not acting quickly enough to punish Ray Rice, Adrian Peterson and other players involved in a rash of recent domestic violence incidents.
"I think he's working very hard in a difficult situation," Bettman, the NHL's longtime commissioner, said Monday.
Bettman, who has been in his position longer than any current commissioner in North American professional sports, said it's impossible to be too comfortable in a job like his or Goodell's because unpredictable things happen. Comparing it to being a CEO of any major company, he added there's no luxury of having a night off.
"Whenever that phone rings, and sometimes it does at two in the morning, you've got to respond and you've got to have your A-game otherwise you're liable to make a mistake, and when you make a mistake in this position, it gets magnified," Bettman said at a meeting for The Canadian Club of Toronto. "And it doesn't matter if you're right 99 out of 100 times, which is a pretty good batting record, it's that one that you'll have to live with and deal with."
Arrested for punching his then-fiancee and now wife earlier this year, Rice was originally suspended for two games, but after a video surfaced on Sept. 8 showing the violent attack, he was released by the Baltimore Ravens and suspended indefinitely. Peterson has been indicted on child-abuse charges and deactivated by the Minnesota Vikings but has not been suspended.
At a news conference last week, Goodell took responsibility for the league's failings in investigating Rice, saying he "didn't get it right."
During several interviews Monday, Bettman didn't reference Rice or Peterson. Instead, he spoke in general terms about how professional sports leagues can handle those kinds of situations.
"You do the best you can, and that's something in areas that are important we've tried to be proactive," Bettman said. "It doesn't mean that things are going to happen in any league, in any business, in any situation that you can't control, but we try to address issues head-on and we try to do the right thing on a consistent basis."
Bettman said the NHL's security department and behavioural health counsellors have talked to players about the topic of domestic violence for more than a decade.
"Based on our experience to date, we believe that the appropriate procedures are in effect that we can do what we need to do on a case-by-case basis," he said in an interview with The Canadian Press. "I am extraordinarily proud of our players and how they conduct themselves. If and when something needs to be addressed in terms of discipline, it will be. But more importantly we try to focus, with the Players' Association, on educating and counselling."
The collective bargaining agreement includes procedures on how to handle off-ice incidents and gives the NHL power to suspend a player amid a criminal investigation if failing to do so would "create a substantial risk of material harm to the legitimate interests and/or reputation of the league."
After the NFL instituted a new policy that made a first domestic-violence offence a six-game suspension, Bettman said the NHL would continue to handle incidents on a case-by-case basis because it has not been an issue that requires setting a standard punishment.
In October 2013, Colorado Avalanche goaltender Semyon Varlamov was charged with felony kidnapping and assault for attacking his girlfriend. Varlamov was not suspended, and the charges were dropped in December when prosecutors said they did not have enough evidence to convict him.
Bettman was not specifically asked about Varlamov's arrest in light of the NFL's handling of domestic violence.
He said sports leagues have an obligation to try to do the right things.
"I don't think anybody who's in the league, be it as an owner, an executive or a player, has any illusions as to what's expected of them," Bettman said. "Our code of conduct is we expect you to do the right thing, and if you don't, we hold you accountable."
In a question-and-answer session with new "Hockey Night In Canada" host George Stroumboulopoulos and those attending the Canadian Club luncheon, Bettman also addressed expansion and other topics related to on-ice action.
Bettman reiterated that the NHL has no current plans to undergo a formal expansion process beyond the 30 teams that have existed since 2000.
"I'm not suggesting that at some point in the future we might not look at, but we're not ready to do it now," he said. "And I don't want to build up anybody's expectations because that's not unfair to people in a community that want to have a franchise."
One recent report said the NHL would expand by four teams, one each in Quebec City, Las Vegas and Seattle and a second franchise in Toronto, by 2017. Asked by Stroumboulopoulos about his philosophical opinion on having two teams in one market, Bettman explained in hypothetical terms that there are pitfalls, especially in Toronto.
"If we decided that we were putting a second team in Ontario, and the year the team was supposed to start, the Leafs won the Cup, that second team wouldn't exist," Bettman said. "When you have historically established teams with great histories and traditions, the second team — even if the first team isn't having tremendous success at the time — the second team will never quite get the premier coverage."
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