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Bettman maintains optimism

January 27, 2008|Helene Elliott | Times Staff Writer

ATLANTA -- Three years after he killed the season to save his league, Commissioner Gary Bettman said the NHL would set records for revenue and attendance and was prepared to withstand jolts from the volatile U.S. economy.

Speaking on the eve of today's All-Star game at Philips Arena, Bettman said rising income from media, sponsors, tickets and in-arena sources had made the NHL "strong and getting stronger."

Revenue exceeded $2.3 billion last season and is projected to top $2.5 billion. That's a remarkable turnaround since a labor dispute led Bettman to cancel the 2004-05 season in his successful push for a salary cap.

"Teams that were having trouble are having less trouble than they were. We're playing to 92% of capacity," Bettman said. "For some teams attendance is a question of performance, and we're doing well.

"Having said that, having big events is good for the game and marketing ourselves with important events such as opening the season in Europe, such as the Winter Classic, are ways that we can continue to extend our brand and tell our story."

Although Bettman wouldn't commit to repeating the Winter Classic -- the outdoor game played in Buffalo on New Year's Day -- he announced plans to open the 2008-09 season with another European visit.

Following the path set when the Kings and Ducks launched the season with two games in London, the Pittsburgh Penguins and Ottawa Senators will play two games in Stockholm, and the New York Rangers and Tampa Bay Lightning will play twice in Prague, Czech Republic.

The Rangers are scheduled to face European club champion Metallurg Magnitogorsk of Russia, in Bern, Switzerland, in the first Victoria Cup, but that may be in jeopardy because of disputes over international player transfer procedures.

Paul Kelly, executive director of the NHL Players Assn., said his group had approved the concept of the games, not the specifics, and could block them.

"We're not going to just be a rubber stamp," he told the Canadian Press. "Once we're presented with details for these events we'll study them carefully, we'll talk to the players. If the players approve, then there'll be no problem."

Players had mixed opinions about playing in Europe.

"Do I think it's a good thing for the NHL? Probably it is. But I personally wouldn't want to do it again," said Chris Pronger of the Ducks and the West All-Stars.

"It's a long way to go for a couple of games. If it's the right teams, maybe. For us this year it probably wasn't the right move, with the short summer and everything. It wasn't the right teams."

Scott Gomez of the Rangers and the East All-Stars acknowledged the appeal of international play but wondered if the NHL should solve problems at home before venturing to Europe.

"There are some cities that maybe we can do more as a league," he said. "I think the main thing about the league is that the product on the ice is just outstanding. The speed is at a new level. It doesn't do justice on TV. That's the first thing we have to do, get the game better on TV."

Bettman diminished speculation the NHL might return to ESPN in even a limited presence. He said the league has a "cordial and cooperative relationship" with ESPN, which ended their association by declining an option for 2005-06. He added, "We talk about things all the time, but nothing more specific than that."

He also said expansion is not on the horizon. Nor is a move to extend the schedule to 84 games at the expense of the exhibition season, a move the NHLPA supports. That was not considered during the Board of Governors meeting Saturday.

While the Ducks had a league-high four All-Stars in Pronger, Corey Perry, Ryan Getzlaf and Scott Niedermayer, the Kings had one -- Anze Kopitar.

"Was it lonely during the interview session Saturday? A little bit," said Kopitar, whose father, Matjaz, traveled from Slovenia to watch him play.

"I hope it will be next year that we have more players at the All-Star game. We have a really young group back in L.A. It's just a matter of time when this group is really going to go on a roll."

Niedermayer's return from retirement isn't enough for the NHL to consider instituting a pre-playoff roster deadline, Bettman said, but "if this were to become a trend, I would have concerns."

Is two a trend? Winger Teemu Selanne may also end his retirement. "I think these two situations are purely independent situations," said Colin Campbell, the NHL's director of hockey operations.

In the skills contest, the East defeated the West, 9-6.

Boston defenseman Zdeno Chara had the hardest shot at 103.1 mph, and Washington's Alexander Ovechkin won the breakaway challenge for the East, capped by a creative spin and a bunt-like shot.

Getzlaf had two of the best efforts of that event, in which creativity was rewarded. Once he kicked the puck off his skate and onto his stick; the second time he turned 180 degrees with the puck on his stick before shooting.

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