Bettman: Balsillie fight isn't personal

Updated: May 30, 2009, 8:54 PM ET
ESPN.com news services

DETROIT -- NHL commissioner Gary Bettman insists he is merely trying to keep the Coyotes in Phoenix, not block Jim Balsillie from buying the team and setting up shop in Ontario.

Bettman sat in a hotel ballroom in the heart of Hockeytown on Saturday and spent much of his time answering questions about the struggling desert-based Coyotes franchise that landed in bankruptcy court against his will.

Just hours before the Detroit Red Wings began defense of their Stanley Cup title in the finals opener against the Pittsburgh Penguins, Bettman spoke of his desire to find a new owner for the Coyotes.

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Team owner Jerry Moyes recently filed for Chapter 11 bankruptcy protection, a plan that included the proposed sale of the club to Balsillie, who would move it to Hamilton, Ontario.

The NHL -- with support from the NFL, Major League Baseball and the NBA -- has asked Judge Redfield Baum to uphold that the league has a right to determine who owns a team and where it plays.

"The issue here is league rules and league processes and procedures," Bettman said. "This is not just an NHL issue. This is not a Canada versus U.S. issue. This is not a Phoenix versus Hamilton issue. And this is certainly not a personal issue."

Mere minutes before Moyes filed for bankruptcy, the NHL was close to selling the team to Chicago Bulls and Chicago White Sox owner Jerry Reinsdorf, who would keep the team playing in its relatively new arena in Glendale, Ariz. The issue of who controls the Coyotes is also in dispute.

"The team was never in jeopardy," Bettman said. "It was literally 20 minutes away from being fixed in a way that we thought was going to work quite well. It's my view that the Coyotes should not be in bankruptcy."

Keeping with the theme of the finals, Bettman noted that the Penguins were in worse shape than the Coyotes when they filed for bankruptcy in 1999. That situation looked particularly bleak because there was no assurance Pittsburgh would get the new arena the team desperately needed.

With core players Sidney Crosby, Evgeni Malkin, and Marc-Andre Fleury, the Penguins are in the finals for the second straight year and look forward to a new arena for the 2010-11 season.

If and when the board is going to consider Mr. Balsillie as an owner, if I am asked my opinion, I will express it. And I'll express it to the Board first before I express it to the world.

--NHL commissioner Gary Bettman

"We didn't walk out on Pittsburgh, we fought to fix their problems," Bettman said. "We're fighting for Phoenix because of our covenant with the team and the fans there."

The Coyotes never have made a profit since moving from Winnipeg in 1996. Court documents say the franchise lost $74 million over the past two years. Moyes says he has a $300 million investment in the team and would recoup only about $100 million in the sale to Balsillie.

The NHL has funded the team since last fall.

"It's about league rules and it's about doing the right thing in terms of the stability of this game and this league," Bettman said.

While saying several times this is not a personal issue against Balsillie, Bettman declined to offer his opinion whether he sees any way the owner of the company that makes the Blackberry would ever be able to acquire an NHL franchise.

"If and when the board is going to consider Mr. Balsillie as an owner, if I am asked my opinion, I will express it. And I'll express it to the Board first before I express it to the world," Bettman said. "If, in the final analysis, the owners conclude that he is somebody that they'd like to have as a partner, then they'll vote him in. And if in the final analysis, they don't think he's suitable to be a partner for whatever reason, they'll conclude to keep him out."

Bettman also addressed financial matters that directly impact the game, namely league revenues and the salary cap.

The NHL's revenues went up 4 percent over the previous year, which should leave next year's salary cap between $54 million and this season's ceiling of $56.7 million.

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Bettman also praised the growth of Versus, which showed marked gains in viewership during the conference finals.

"Versus across the board was up 25 percent, and Versus provided the most watched conference semifinals and conference finals in a decade," Bettman said. "Think about that in the context of where we are, where we've been. Those are outstanding numbers. Versus and the NHL are growing together. That was the plan. That is the plan, and that's why we've seen the most watched playoffs in the United States since 2002."

Bettman said the NHL has played to over 100 percent attendance during the playoffs, and that teams have reported season-ticket renewals near 80 percent for the 2009-10 campaign.

"It's not even June yet," he said. "That is quite a strong number, particularly in this environment, to say the least."

The commissioner would also like to see greater progression in the league's drug-testing program. Although he believes the NHL isn't plagued by the use of performance-enhancing drugs, Bettman wants stronger standards -- including offseason testing and a broader list of banned substances.

"I acknowledge that our testing program could be more comprehensive and it is time, we believe, that the players' association step up and agree to make the changes that the World Anti-Doping Agency has recommended," Bettman said. "The players' association has not been ready to embrace it, but [executive director] Paul Kelly has indicated that he supports it and I take him at his word.

"He believes he needs some time to persuade him members to go along with it."

Kelly acknowledged in a statement to ESPN.com's Pierre LeBrun that the NHLPA would be open to discussing revamped testing.

"The NHLPA will be discussing drug testing with our membership this summer," Kelly said. "The NHL did not want to include playoff testing when the joint program was first collectively bargained back in 2005 as they deemed that the testing would be a distraction, and that is an area the league has now indicated they would like to review with the NHLPA. The NHLPA will indeed discuss this matter further with our members at our player meetings in June."

Kelly said that offseason testing is something they would discuss, but that the NHLPA is happy with the current system.

"There has been testing of NHL players for the past four seasons and also testing at each of the last three Olympics and numerous International hockey competitions," Kelly said. "While we continue to review the program and discuss modifications with our members, we are pleased with how the program has operated to date"

Information from the Associated Press was used in this report. Pierre LeBrun covers the NHL for ESPN.com.

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