Olympics? Vegas? Bettman checks in
The future of the league was uncertain yet filled with cautious optimism back then. So, it's fitting that this year, in the midst of the gloomiest economic forecast in decades juxtaposed against the dramatic renaissance in Boston and Chicago, the NHL's leaders once again will meet to discuss the paths the league might travel in the coming months and years.
NHL commissioner Gary Bettman spoke to ESPN.com earlier this week about a wide range of topics, including the economy, the Phoenix Coyotes, the New York Islanders and the future of the league's participation in the Olympics.
The OlympicsThere is a perception that Bettman is anti-Olympics or anti-NHL players in the Olympics, but the commissioner likes to point out he was the one who put the NHL and the Olympics together back in 1998 in Nagano. "I'm the guy that made it happen," he said.
That said, after the 2010 Vancouver Games, there's going to be time for some soul-searching about whether the NHL and the Olympics are a fit going forward. After three visits to the Olympics (Nagano, Salt Lake City and Torino) and with a fourth on the way, "There are aspects of this endeavor that are problematic," the commissioner said.
The 2014 Games are set for the Russian resort town of Sochi. Will it make sense for the league to go dark for three weeks to play games that won't be available in prime time in North America?
One of the main arguing points for the NHL's participation is it draws fans, especially the casual fan, to the game when it is played on the grand stage of the Olympics. When the Games are outside North America, many consider that benefit to be negligible. Likewise, North American interest drops off significantly when Canada and the United States aren't involved in medal competition, as was the case in 2006 and 1998.
Salt Lake City, of course, represented the NHL's fantasy matchup with Canada and the U.S. playing for the gold in a game that was seen in prime time in North America by an enormous television audience. Vancouver no doubt will do whopper numbers in terms of television ratings, but that alone isn't enough to sign on for Russia four years down the road.
There is also the issue of injury and competitive balance when it comes to NHL players playing in the Olympics.
Is there any way to determine just how much the 2006 Olympics cost the Ottawa Senators? Netminder Dominik Hasek injured himself early in the round-robin portion of the Torino Games and did not play again for the Sens, who finished atop the Eastern Conference. Ottawa subsequently was eliminated by the Buffalo Sabres in the second round of the playoffs.
What of teams like the Detroit Red Wings that traditionally have strong participation in the Olympic Games, then play teams full of players who have used the Olympic break to rest? In 2006, the Wings won the Presidents' Trophy and were upended in the first round by an Edmonton team that had sent far fewer players to Italy.
The players are, in general, supportive of continuing Olympic participation regardless of where the Games are played. Bettman said he hopes to sit down sometime after the Vancouver Games with the NHL Players' Association and have a detailed discussion about the pros and cons of moving forward.
Las VegasAh, Vegas. The lure of the bright lights and its no-holds-barred lifestyle has been tempting pro sports for a long time. The NBA took its All-Star Game there to mixed reviews. The NHL has been there for an exhibition game, and league officials told a small group of reporters at the Winter Classic that the league is looking to move its annual awards show from Toronto to Sin City this June. That merely stoked the fires of a possible NHL franchise setting up shop there.
Bettman, however, wouldn't confirm that the awards show will make an appearance in Vegas this year even though it remains "TBA" on the NHL's schedule.
He acknowledged there has been interest from various people in Las Vegas about owning an NHL team, but there isn't a suitable arena in the city and the construction of such a facility isn't currently on the books, Bettman said.
Still, he said, the city is interesting.
Among cities that don't have an NHL franchise, Las Vegas regularly has among the highest television ratings for NHL games. It's also, obviously, a popular tourist destination, and that might dovetail nicely with having a pro sports franchise there.
Bettman cautioned, however, that even if the NHL does head to Vegas for the awards show, no one should be drawing a line between that and possible NHL expansion (even if the awards end up at The Palms, which happens to be owned by the Maloof brothers, who have been, in the past, linked to interest in owning an NHL franchise).
"You can draw all the lines you like," Bettman joked.
The economyOne of the constant criticisms of Bettman during his tenure as commissioner has been that he sees every NHL glass as being half full. Anywhere else, he might be considered an optimist, but in the hockey world, he is regularly castigated for it. Still, despite the global economic downturn that has battered markets around the globe, Bettman told ESPN.com he thinks the NHL is well-positioned to emerge from this period on a more positive note than other sports.
"We haven't yet felt a significant impact from the economy," Bettman said.
He acknowledged some "softening around the edges" in terms of tickets sales in some markets, but predicted the NHL will see growth in the 5.5 to 6 percent range this season. That growth is separate from the fluctuations in the Canadian dollar, he added.
Bettman disputed the notion that this season isn't a real barometer of the league's health because much of the revenues was locked in before the season began and the bottom fell out of the markets. He pointed to bringing in 10 new corporate sponsors for this year's All-Star Weekend and eight more through the current regular season.
"Attendance is up. Television ratings are up. We're actually having a pretty good season," he said. "We have fewer empty seats than we did last year."
Although the salary cap isn't expected to decline much, if any, next season, the 2010-11 campaign is expected to be when the real impact of the economic slowdown will be felt. Bettman said the league will be looking for signs of more softening in the NHL economy this spring with playoff ticket sales; those ticket prices generally jump dramatically compared with regular-season ticket prices. Season-ticket renewals also will be an indication of whether the NHL can maintain its momentum in spite of the economy.
"While we're not immune [to the economy's downturn], we seem to be bucking the trend," the commissioner said. "We may weather this better than most [major sports]."
Phoenix CoyotesIt seems every year or two, there's an NHL franchise that hits the rocks economically and engenders much discussion about whether it will either fold or be sold and moved somewhere else (Kansas City, Southern Ontario, Houston, Las Vegas, take your pick).
A couple of years ago, it was the Nashville Predators. This season, the Coyotes are the ship on shoals. Owner Jerry Moyes is desperate to find either new ownership or investors to help shoulder what is expected to be another season of annual losses in excess of $30 million (The Globe and Mail of Toronto suggested the number will exceed $40 million with debt financing factored in).
The franchise lost 25 percent of its revenue-sharing stipend last season because it didn't hit attendance and revenue triggers and must clear most of its financial moves with the NHL. The league and team are locked in a struggle with the city of Glendale, which financed most of the Coyotes' arena, to alter the lease to create more revenue streams.
Most critics draw a line from the economy to the Coyotes to suggest the proverbial chickens coming home to roost long after the team was moved from Winnipeg. Yet Bettman insists this situation is no different from those of other markets that found themselves in trouble from time to time.
He cited bankruptcy issues in Buffalo, Pittsburgh and Ottawa, and the rocky times Canadian franchises in Calgary, Edmonton and Vancouver endured as examples of how teams weathered various financial storms and went on to thrive. He predicted the same outcome for Phoenix.
"I think in too many quarters, too much is being made of this," Bettman said. "As we sit here today, I believe we'll get our arms around this just as we have with all the others."
There are, in fact, some positive signs in the desert.
Coach and part-owner Wayne Gretzky told The Arizona Republic last week that he has been meeting with potential investors in the Coyotes. The team is young and talented and enters the All-Star break in fifth place in the Western Conference and well positioned for its first playoff berth since 2002.
Ticket sales data provided to ESPN.com by the Coyotes shows a marked increase in actual paid attendance this season. Through the team's first 24 home games, the Coyotes are averaging 14,426 tickets sold per game compared with 11,397 a year ago.
The New York IslandersBettman said the NHL has no plans for relocation or contraction. But if one had to pick one franchise that could be most susceptible to a move, it might be the Islanders.
Unless owner Charles Wang's Lighthouse Project moves forward, there is little chance decaying Nassau Coliseum will be retrofitted or a new facility will be built to house the Islanders. Whether the lack of progress stems from Wang's handling of the project or intransigence on the part of local politicians, the Islanders quite simply need a new facility if they're going to stay on Long Island.
When the current lease expires July 31, 2015, Bettman said he has no way to guess what Wang might do. Wang is considered by some to be among the NHL's wackiest owners (Rick DiPietro's 15-year contract is looking like one of the worst contracts ever handed an NHL player), yet Bettman praised Wang for being "all things Long Island and all things New York Islanders."
Still, the commissioner warned that the uncertainty over a new or refurbished home for the Islanders "has been going on too long."
"At some point, even Charles Wang is going to say enough is enough."
Bettman suggested a historical perspective on the Islanders' situation. He pointed out that Winnipeg and Quebec didn't lose their franchises (to Phoenix and Colorado, respectively) because they were bad hockey markets. They weren't. But they lost their teams because there was no reasonable expectation of new arenas being built in those cities and no one prepared to step forward to buy those teams and keep them in those markets.
The Islanders might be heading down the same path.
"I hope nobody is taking Charles Wang for granted," Bettman said.
As for this fall's exhibition game in Kansas City, where the Anschutz Entertainment Group, owner of the Los Angeles Kings, has a brand-new building and no anchor tenant, Bettman said he wouldn't read too much into one solitary exhibition game, even though many believe this is Wang's way of suggesting he would move the team if the Lighthouse Project continues to languish.
Highlights so far?The NHL commissioner was on hand for season-opening games in Stockholm and Prague and said he was enthused by the Europeans' reception to the NHL's games there in September. He noted the Winter Classic and the positive reaction to the second straight outdoor game. He recalled seeing a dynamite game between Calgary and Chicago in Calgary. "The game, on the ice, I think is as good as it's ever been," he said.
Scott Burnside covers the NHL for ESPN.com.