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All quiet on the NHL front: Bettman, owners optimistic

The Canadian Press

12/7/2010 5:44:51 PM

PALM BEACH, Fla. -- In recent years, Gary Bettman has often arrived at the NHL's annual board of governors meeting in damage control mode as he juggled one crisis or another.

But there was a different feeling among the NHL commissioner and the rest of league's power brokers as they gathered in South Florida this week.

For a change, there was optimism in the air.

Instead of dealing with problems, the group focused its attention on the positive -- such as the impending negotiation of a national TV contract in the U.S., the growth of its brand overseas and a continued bump in revenues that is expected to see the salary cap rise by another US$3 million.

"I think the league is in great shape, really great shape," St. Louis Blues owner Dave Checketts said Tuesday as the meetings wrapped up. "I feel good about Gary's leadership. I feel good about the way we're addressing our issues. I think the league is an attractive investment for a lot of people now."

Checketts can speak with some authority on that issue because he's in the middle of a search for investors to buy into his ownership group. And he's very close to finalizing a deal.

"We're well along," said Checketts. "We have said that we thought probably early in the new year we'll be done and we will hit that."

By that time, Matthew Hulsizer could be taking control of the Phoenix Coyotes. The 40-year-old Chicago financier made a positive impression on the board's executive committee Monday and is expected to be rubber-stamped in as owner of the financially troubled club once he completes a new lease agreement with Glendale, Ariz., on Jobing.com Arena.

"It was a good healthy exchange and dialogue," Bettman said Tuesday of the meeting with Hulsizer. "When we ultimately get to the point of actually going for league approval -- where all of the clubs will vote on him and the transaction -- it will carry the unanimous recommendation of the executive committee."

The only other formal piece of business conducted by the board was approving the sale of Harley Hotchkiss's 22 per cent stake in the Calgary Flames to the team's other owners. The 83-year-old recently told the Calgary Herald he's battling prostate cancer and Bettman said the sale was about "estate planning."

Despite the ownership transfer, he will continue to be involved.

"He is somebody who will remain active with the Calgary Flames and the league," said Bettman. "He remains an alternate governor and a director, but most importantly it keeps Harley involved in our game. ... He was chairman of the board for 12 years, including some difficult times, (and) he's well-respected, well-regarded."

The NHL has aggressively expanded its business interests in recent years, filling its calendar with more events (Winter Classic outdoor game, regular-season games in Europe, awards show in Las Vegas) and investing heavily to create more content for its own platforms.

As a result, the league believes it is in a much better position to secure a favourable American TV deal than it was when Versus and NBC were brought on after the lockout. Those contracts both expire in June.

"What's different (now) is we're a much more significant player in the media landscape than we've been for a whole host of reasons," said Bettman. "It's the game on the ice, the competitive balance, a variety of things we're doing to engage our fans. The presence of digital media. Our ratings are stronger.

"We had a terrific year last year, including during the playoffs where we set all sorts of records for us, the last few years we're in a good place, better than we've been on a whole host of platforms and measurables and I think there's interest in us more than there's ever been."

But some problem spots remain, even if they weren't discussed by the governors this week.

With the Coyotes sale nearing its conclusion, hopeful hockey fans in Winnipeg and Quebec City will likely start turning their attention to the Atlanta Thrashers, another potential candidate for relocation. That city lost its first NHL team to Canada -- Hotchkiss helped bring the Calgary Flames north in 1980 -- and is currently struggling at the box office with an average attendance of less than 12,000.

However, Thrashers president Don Waddell believes the problems are manageable.

"We've heard it before," he said. "There are always things happening in our business we can't control and we just deal with it. We have a good team right now and we're trying to market and sell tickets in Atlanta."

A number of other teams are said to be available, but there seems to be suitors, such as Pennsylvania billionaire Terrence Pegula, who has been linked to the Buffalo Sabres in recent reports.

"We get inquiries about the team all the time," said Sabres majority owner Tom Golisano. "It's the policy of the Sabres not to comment on it. If something substantive happens, we'll let you know."

Overall, the NHL seems to be in a much better place than it was before the lockout. The deal that emerged from the standoff included not only a salary cap, but also revenue sharing that benefits "10 to 15 teams each season," according to Bettman.

"I think actually the issues that we addressed in collective bargaining have worked for many teams," said Checketts, a former executive with the NBA's New York Knicks. "I think the league's in much better shape. In every league, there's always going to be cities that do better than others, arenas that generate more dollars than others. The salary cap has a way of evening out the rules and putting you on a level playing field, much more than it used to be.

"I've run rich teams and not so rich teams. I've kind of been on both sides of this coin."