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Bettman happy with new NHL's resurgence

3/15/2006 - NHL

CHICAGO -- Commissioner Gary Bettman was bullish Wednesday on the revamped NHL, saying a new collective bargaining agreement and rules changes opening up the ice have restored its popularity quickly after a lost season.

Bettman said preliminary figures show that of 30 teams, the number making money this season will be "somewhere in the low to mid 20s." He said NHL arenas are filled to 91 percent of capacity and that overall the league will make money.

"A lot of people suggested we could never have come out of missing a season, that fans would never come back," Bettman said. "We're on pace to set an attendance record all-time. Our fans understood what we were doing, knew why we were doing it and wanted it fixed. We came back with the belief we did the right things."

A salary cap that is $39 million this season was a central point of the six-year collective bargaining agreement.

"It neutralized money as the deciding criteria from a competitive standpoint," Bettman said. "It's really how you put your team together and how it works for you."

One team it really hasn't worked for is the Chicago Blackhawks, one of the NHL's pioneer franchises, currently occupying the cellar in the Western Conference. The Blackhawks were aggressive in free agency after the labor dispute ended, but it has not panned out for a once-proud franchise that is on the way to missing the playoffs for the seventh time in eight seasons. And attendance is still on the decline with thousands of empty seats at the United Center.

"Winning is a part of it. They are clearly in the upper half in terms of spending," Bettman said. "With a cap system it's about where you are in the cycle. ... They've had some unfortunate injuries, but I think long-term they are doing things you need to do in this system. It may have not ignited as fast as it did in other places."

Rule changes to eliminate the grabbing and clutching in the center of the ice have worked, and a shootout at the end of tie games has also been popular, Bettman said.

"We're seeing more lead changes and more unpredictability," he said.

Bettman said the NHL is not looking to relocate franchises and not considering expansion. But he added if a franchise does have to move, there are several markets interested, including Winnipeg.

He said the future of the Pittsburgh Penguins will rest with securing a new building and that the issue should be resolved by the beginning of next year.

"We're all hoping, as they are, that they get a new building," Bettman said. "They need it."