Bettman addresses Preds, NBC and his future with the league

Updated: May 28, 2007, 11:35 PM ET
By Scott Burnside | ESPN.com

ANAHEIM -- It wasn't quite Gary Bettman standing on a chair wearing a Laurie Boschman jersey and leading a "bring back the Jets" cheer, but in his strongest language yet, the NHL commissioner opened the door to a return of NHL hockey to Winnipeg in the future.

In his annual "state of the league" address in advance of Game 1 of the Stanley Cup finals, Bettman was asked about the possible sale of the Nashville Predators to Canadian businessman Jim Balsillie, who is believed to be interested in having a team in Southern Ontario. Bettman said he is "intrigued" by the idea of increasing the Canadian content of the league.

"With respect to a franchise returning to Canada, that's something that intrigues me," Bettman said. "Because with the partnership we have with the players and the revenue sharing, it's something that, while we haven't studied it, seems to be more likely than three, four, five years ago."

Bettman acknowledged he has done little research into the matter, but suggested he would rather see the league return to a Canadian city that had lost a team as opposed to opening up a new market. Of the two Canadian cities which lost franchises in the 1990s (Quebec City, which became the Colorado Avalanche, and Winnipeg, which became the Phoenix Coyotes), Winnipeg is seen as the most logical choice to rejoin the NHL because it has a new arena and more community support for a return to the NHL.

"When we had the chance to go back to Minnesota, we did. Because it made sense, the right ownership, the right building situation," Bettman said. "The market was strong and vibrant. We haven't studied Quebec City or Winnipeg or anywhere else in Canada, but the notion that if it could work to put a franchise back in a place where one was lost, feels good -- provided we don't wind up in a situation where we've created a prescription for another failing franchise.

"It's something that if the right circumstances presented themselves and there was an interest in a real and meaningful material way, it's something that we would have to obviously look at seriously. But beyond that, we haven't gone to the next step, whatever that might be," the commissioner added.

Still, even with the salary cap and revenue sharing in place, there would still be significant hurdles to having a successful team in Winnipeg. First, the new MTS Center, where the AHL's Manitoba Moose play, would need to be retrofit to expand seating, and there remains a question of whether there's enough corporate support in the city to support an NHL franchise.

Bettman's comments might well be a shot across the Balsillie bow, a gentle suggestion that if Balsillie is indeed thinking of moving the Predators, he might be directed more to Winnipeg than Southern Ontario, where Balsillie is reportedly most interested in having a team.

Asked about having more than one team in the Toronto area, Bettman was lukewarm. He said it's difficult for the three New York-area teams to generate enough media coverage, especially if they are struggling on the ice.

But a number of NHL governors and GMs have told ESPN.com they believe a second team in the Toronto area would a sure-fire hit, even if Buffalo and Toronto might object.

Bettman refuted the commonly held notion that the Predators will be on the move.

"I think if anybody believes that this franchise is destined to a particular location, that's more a matter of speculation," Bettman said.

The Predators might very well remain in Nashville in perpetuity, but without a significant boost in corporate sponsorship in the market, the team is doomed. And Balsillie, assuming he is granted ownership by the NHL's board of governors, will petition to move the team somewhere.

Bettman said he met with Balsillie last week and asked him if he had any intention of moving the team.

"And he told me he did not," Bettman said.

But owners change their minds and it would be a huge surprise if Balsillie didn't opt to move if average attendance doesn't hit the 14,000 threshold needed to ensure the team stays put.

Other topics Bettman discussed included:

The Rick Tocchet gambling issue
The former assistant coach with the Phoenix Coyotes pleaded guilty to gambling charges this week and will be sentenced later this summer. He is expected to avoid doing jail time. Tocchet has been on leave from the league pending the outcome of the criminal charges and he is expected to ask to be able to return to work. Of course, the fact that Tocchet decided it would be a good idea to run a gambling ring while working for an NHL club will likely make that process more than a little tricky.

Bettman said he won't make any decision until Tocchet's sentence is handed down and an investigator hired by the league, Bob Cleary, meets with Tocchet.

The NBC overtime incident
Bettman acknowledged the league might have erred on a number of fronts leading up to last Saturday's turn of events that saw NBC dump the deciding game of the Eastern Conference finals between Ottawa and Buffalo when the game went to overtime in order to fulfill its contractual obligations to air the lead-up to the Preakness horse race.

Bettman defended the decision to expose the league to this possibility, saying it's important for the league to be on a major network like NBC.

"At this stage of the season, I wanted to have as much of the games as possible in the broadest possible distribution as possible," Bettman said.

While it might be viewed that the league was unlucky when the Sabres/Senators game went to overtime, the truth of the matter is that it was lucky the same thing didn't happen several weeks earlier on the Saturday of the Kentucky Derby, when the same possibility existed as it did a year ago during the two race weekends.

The league made a decision knowing the risk. Perhaps it was the wrong one, Bettman said.

"You can second-guess it. I do myself," he said.

Speaking of the league's struggling television ratings in the United States, Bettman said ratings are but one measure of the league's popularity.

"It doesn't define us," he said. "We don't have to apologize to anybody for what we are."

Shorter season, not fewer games
Tired of hockey in mid-June? Bettman said he has approached the players' association about compressing the normally light October schedule, which might save between one and two weeks at the end of the playoffs. But, he said, the players' association hasn't signed off on the changes.

Salary cap going up
Next season's salary cap will likely increase between 6.5 to 7 percent to $48-$49 million. Much of that increased revenue is due to ticket price increases. Asked about the increases, which were supposed to be held in check with the salary cap, Bettman said average ticket prices across the league are actually slightly lower than they were four years ago.

Scoring
Bettman said the competition committee and GMs will all discuss the decline in goal scoring in the offseason. He said goals were down just three-tenths of one goal during the regular season, but a full goal in the playoffs. Bettman said the decline in the regular season can be attributed to fewer power-play goals because, in theory at least, teams have adapted to the new rules on obstruction. Even-strength scoring was up during the regular season. Bettman said the question general managers and the competition committee will have to ponder is, "Do we need a moment of gratification that only a goal can bring?"

Not going anywhere anytime soon
Bettman dispelled any notion that he might be headed out to pasture anytime soon. He said he has a contract that will keep him in the commissioner's chair until "at least" his 60th birthday. He turns 55 next Saturday.

Scott Burnside is the NHL writer for ESPN.com

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