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Bettman sends warning on tampering, considers outdoor options

5/25/2008 - NHL

DETROIT -- Without naming any names, NHL commissioner Gary Bettman fired a shot at the Toronto Maple Leafs and Anaheim GM Brian Burke during his annual state of the league address before Game 1 of the Stanley Cup finals, warning of grave consequences if there is any tampering.

It is common knowledge the Maple Leafs covet Burke's services as GM after dismissing former GM John Ferguson before the end of the regular season.

But Burke has one more year left on his contract in Anaheim; and despite interest in the Leafs job and the attendant benefits to his family life, the Ducks have insisted he fulfill the remaining time on his deal.

This makes sense. If the Ducks will be looking for a new GM in a year, which seems inevitable, it's best they take as much time getting the most out of one of the best managers in the game.

The problem, of course, is the Leafs now appear immobilized by their failure to land Burke (How many times have you seen "Leafs" and "immobilized" in the same sentence in the past decade?), and seem set to head into a crucial offseason with interim GM Cliff Fletcher remaining at the helm.

Dave Nonis, who recently was fired as Canucks GM and used to work for Burke in Vancouver, has talked with the Leafs about some sort of position, fueling speculation that the Leafs will wait out the coming season with a makeshift management team and then swoop up Burke a year from now.

The optics of this aren't particularly pleasant for a GM who doesn't want to be where he is and a team waiting in the wings to hire him, but they are what they are.

Bettman was asked, in a roundabout way, about the situation. He made it clear that if teams were tampering with personnel under contract to another team, he would move swiftly and decisively against both the team and the individual.

"People who sign contracts can be held to them by the other party to the contract, and there's nothing wrong with that," Bettman said. "If there's tampering going on, ultimately there are no secrets in this world. We will get to the bottom of it. And I'm no fan of tampering. And when it happens, it gets punished severely.

"A team that meddles with an individual under contract could face heavy fines and the loss of draft picks. And an individual who talks to a team while he's still under contract would face fines and a possible suspension."

Bettman also was asked about the legal problems facing Ducks owner Henry Samueli, who recently stepped down as chairman of Broadcom Corp after a civil suit was filed by the Securities Exchange Commission relating to stock options. Bettman said he would wait until the legal proceedings ran their course.

"The Samuelis have been terrific owners. They're perhaps the most community-minded and charitable people in all of Orange County," Bettman said. "I am not going to fret about something that may or may not be substantiated at the end of the day. I know Henry Samueli and Susan Samueli are committed to the Ducks, and I am not worried about them as we sit here today."

Another Winter Classic?
One thing seems clear -- with the success of the Winter Classic between Pittsburgh and Buffalo in January, the NHL once again will take its game outdoors next season. But just where that might be, Bettman wasn't prepared to say. With logistical problems pushing a date at Yankee Stadium to the back burner, one of the sites being hotly debated is Chicago's Soldier Field with a possible date between the Blackhawks and Red Wings.

Bettman did say talk of an annual "Battle of Pennsylvania" at Penn State likely wouldn't work given the number of teams that are interested in hosting an outdoor game.

"I can't envision right now a scenario where we would have two teams play annually outdoors," Bettman said. "We think the outdoor game was spectacular. We think it's special and needs to stay special.

"We're not going to overdo it," Bettman added. "The possibility of having the Penguins play the Flyers at some point in Happy Valley is intriguing, and it's on the list of possibilities that we are and will explore. I also have no doubt that if you played every year in Happy Valley, the weather would not cooperate every year. These games are difficult to put on. They're risky. They're expensive. And they're dependent on things that are not within our control."

What's next in net?
Bettman was optimistic a new committee struck to examine issues of downsizing goaltenders' equipment would be more successful than in the past because the makeup of the committee has equal representation from the NHL Players' Association and ownership.

"And so, when you're looking at the way we're set up and you're looking at the overall infrastructure, I think this is going to be the best attempt that can be made to deal with goaltender equipment," Bettman said. "And if the committee is unsuccessful, then we'll have to go to Plan B, which I don't know what it is yet. But there will be one."

Many people believe this is the last effort at reducing the size of equipment and thereby increasing scoring opportunities before there is serious discussion about increasing the size of the nets.

Competing schedules
Bettman told reporters the unfortunate situation that sees the Red Wings and Penguins go head to head with the NBA's Eastern Conference finals between the Detroit Pistons and Boston Celtics for the first two games of the Cup final was unavoidable given that both leagues locked in their postseason schedules with broadcasting rights long ago.

"I'm not happy about it in terms of our fans in Detroit, but there's nothing any of us could do," Bettman said. "I'd prefer there be no techno concert, there be no Tigers game. I prefer that … all the restaurants in Detroit closed, everybody staying home and watching us. It's not realistic.

"It's unfortunate, and it's unfortunate in a funny sort of way, because Detroit sports fans are fortunate that two of their teams are doing so well. Who would have thought?"

'The octopi will fly'
Bettman also defended the league's crackdown on Joe Louis Arena octopus-twirler Al Sobotka, the world's most famous Zamboni driver. Sobotka has been forbidden from swinging the slimy creatures that are thrown onto the ice before the start of every home Red Wings playoff game under threat of a $10,000 fine.

Too much gunk on the ice, Bettman explained.

"I don't know what the technical name is for stuff that comes off an octopus. I assume it's some sort of gunk," Bettman said. "When it sticks on the ice, it's a problem.

"It's really more about making sure that no player hits something on the ice and blows out his knee. It's about the conditions that we're playing under. So I have no illusions. The octopi will fly, but they just can't be swung because we've got to limit the gunk."

For the record, the start of Game 1 was delayed momentarily after three octopi hit the ice following the national anthem.

Scott Burnside is the NHL writer for ESPN.com.