State of the NHL
Bettman optimistic despite mounting obstaclesPosted: Saturday February 01, 2003 6:24 PM
Updated: Saturday February 01, 2003 10:00 PM
SUNRISE, Fla. (AP) -- Contraction isn't an option for solving the NHL's economic problems with its bankrupt franchises in Ottawa and Buffalo, commissioner Gary Bettman said Saturday.
Bettman dismissed a suggestion the league might fold a team or two after expanding from 21 to 30 teams in less than a decade -- with some of the growth into markets where the sport is now struggling.
"Contraction doesn't have any interest to me," Bettman said during the league's All-Star weekend. "I believe in every market we have, that every franchise can be fully competitive. These are all good markets.
"There are ups and downs and cycles in every franchise's performance, and each one of our franchises, under the right circumstances, can be successful."
Despite Bettman's optimistic stance, four NHL teams have filed for bankruptcy protection in eight years. Also, nearly new markets such as Florida, Tampa Bay, Phoenix, Nashville and Atlanta -- viewed a few years ago as the key to sustaining the league's growth and popularity -- have seen falloffs in attendance and fan interest.
Despite the seemingly troubling trends, Bettman said, "I don't like franchise relocation, I really don't. I believe Ottawa is a terrific market and the Corel Centre is one of the best facilities in North America, and we want to do everything possible we can to get this team sold -- even if it's sold to Rod Bryden."
Bryden, formerly the Senators' majority owner, submitted his offer to repurchase the club and its arena a week after the team went into bankruptcy. That bid is still being negotiated with creditors, with an answer possibly coming Monday.
If the Bryden bid isn't accepted, Canadian billionaire Eugene Melnyk also might enter the bidding. He acknowledged Friday he is interested in buying the team and the arena.
Also Monday, Buffalo businessman Mark Hamister might get company as he tries to buy the Sabres. The fourth extension of the agreement giving him exclusive rights to negotiate the purchase expires then, and Bettman all but said there won't be another extension.
Hamister's offer requires a $30 million-plus public assistance package that isn't likely to be forthcoming.
"I have concerns whether the public sector support will be there," Bettman said. "But even if we choose not to extend the exclusivity period again, the Hamister group will be free to pursue the purchase. At the same time, we may well decide to explore what other options we have."
Despite his strong anti-contraction stance Saturday, Bettman said earlier that the Sabres could fold or move if they weren't sold this season.
On the ice, Bettman said the league might take another look at its policy allowing certain injured players to skip the All-Star game. Toronto star Mats Sundin and goalie Ed Belfour were excused from playing, only to return to the ice before the All-Star break.
Their absence leaves the All-Star game without a Maple Leafs player for the first time.
"It's possible we were overly lenient, and that may be something we have to monitor," Bettman said. "If we have to be more vigilant in policing injuries, maybe we'll have to be."
Bettman again defended the NHL's crackdown on obstruction penalties, saying it has not been relaxed despite complaints to the contrary,
On Saturday, for example, Penguins star Alexei Kovalev said, "You knew they would eventually go back to where it was. It started good, now it's back to where it was."
NHL operations chief Colin Campbell denied that, though he said the officiating wasn't always as consistent as the league would like.
"Some nights, you'd love to reach inside the TV screen and strangle some of the people who work for you," he said.