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Bettman talks economy, fighting as meetings end

Wednesday, 03.11.2009 / 4:00 PM / NHL Insider

By Shawn P. Roarke - NHL.com Senior Managing Editor

"There was no message, in particular, given; other than Bill Daly made a presentation that, in effect, showed the operation of the (salary) cap and potential impacts, as a general matter, on what will happen if the cap is flat or goes down a little bit. But we didn't give a whole new series of financial projections. They're still pretty much as I projected them at the All-Star Game."
-- Commissioner Gary Bettman

NAPLES, Fla. -- Two issues dominated discussion between NHL Commissioner Gary Bettman and the media as the NHL GM Meetings ended here at the Ritz-Carlton Golf Resort: The state of the NHL economy and the issue of fighting.

Fighting, particularly ways to change the culture of fisticuffs in today's game, dominated the first two days of the three-day session. Wednesday, it was more about the economic outlook for a league -- like all businesses -- that is being buffeted by the intense storm raging across the global economy.

For Bettman, education is a key to survival in troubling times. He asked NHL Deputy Commissioner Bill Daly to make a presentation to the 30 general managers on where the salary cap stands today and where it might be for the 2009-10 season.

"There was no message, in particular, given; other than Bill Daly made a presentation that, in effect, showed the operation of the (salary) cap and potential impacts, as a general matter, on what will happen if the cap is flat or goes down a little bit," Bettman said. "But we didn't give a whole new series of financial projections. They're still pretty much as I projected them at the All-Star Game.”

Bettman's predictions back in January suggested that real growth in revenues would occur, but the adjusted growth -- for salary cap purposes -- would mean the cap would hover near the present-day threshold of $56.8 million per team.

The cap, however, could see a little bump, Bettman said Wednesday, if the National Hockey League Players' Association decides to apply the inflator it is entitled to exercise by the CBA. Bettman added the widespread concern that the salary cap -- which is based on a percentage of hockey-related revenues -- could go down in the 2010-11 season cannot be discounted.

"The issue, I think, is going to be does the Players' Association want to take the inflator, which in effect, would keep the cap where it was for this year next year, or do they want to take out the inflator," Bettman said. "If you are concerned about the cap really going down in 2010-11, then you might not want to take the inflator to let things come down gradually.

"On the other hand, if you don't want to impact this year's free agents disproportionate to everyone else, than you probably want the inflator -- understanding though that is likely to expand the escrow."

To explain, as part of the Collective Bargaining Agreement, the PA puts a percentage of player salaries into escrow to cover a shortfall of projected hockey revenues as it relates to the salary cap.

As for how it affects on-ice play, most of the league's GMs are operating under the assumption the cap will remain flat in the 2009-10 season and could drop more dramatically in 2010-11.

Detroit's Ken Holland, whose team is right up against the cap this season, has resigned himself to the fact he will be unable to sign several of his free agents if the cap does not grow measurably next season. His job now, he says, is to identify which of those free agents he most needs to sign and which he can most afford to let go.

Brian Burke, the Toronto GM, said he sees a financial correction coming, at least for the Maple Leafs.

"I don't think there will be more or less activity (this summer)," Burke said. "I saw a quote from an agent that he doesn't think there will be any market correction. I know we're planning on the basis that (a correction) is quite likely.

"I look at how quickly it hit baseball, the impact it had on player contracts was almost instantaneous. It was within 90 days and there are still some good ballplayers out of work. I think we'd be delusional to think we're not going to see some impact."

The issue of fighting was more cut-and-dried than the economic forecasting after the GMs spent much of the meetings' first 48 hours discussing an issue that has become a flashpoint in the past few months.

The GMs left the meetings with several recommendations that will now go to the NHL Competition Committee. If approved, the NHL Board of Governors would have final say on whether the measures are enacted.

Included among the suggestions the GMs made this week: Assessment of a 10-minute misconduct -- plus the traditional 5-minute fighting major -- for players participating in a so-called "stage" fight, one that does not occur during game action. The GMs also suggested greater use of the instigator penalty already in the rulebook to limit instances of players responding to body checks -- be they clean or illegal -- through the dropping of gloves in retaliation against the player delivering the hit in question. Players that instigate fights while wearing a visor will be assessed an additional instigator penalty, resulting in a total of 19 minutes in penalties on the play for the aggressor.
"I was very pleased with the level of discussion and analysis that went on by the group." -- Commissioner Gary Bettman
Plus, linesman will be encouraged to break up fights earlier when it is deemed one combatant has become vulnerable in the course of the altercation.

Wednesday, Bettman said he was on board with all those recommendations.

"I was very pleased with the level of discussion and analysis that went on by the group," he said. "Among the other discussions about the game that the group had, (fighting) was taken very seriously and extremely thoughtfully and participatory. There were a lot of words thrown around like accountability and thermostat on the game and a good analysis of the role that fighting plays as part of the game and an overall sense that the managers feel the game is in good shape."

Bettman acknowledges the recommendations have already spawned critics, notably Georges Laraque of the Montreal Canadiens, a player that fights regularly. But in the end, Bettman believes the game will be better for the fighting recommendations spawned at this meetings.

"Fighting has always been an emotional issue, but in terms of any interaction I have with hockey executives, coaches, players, fans; the overwhelming sentiment is that it is part of the game and there is no burning desire by a large group of people that have any interest in the game of getting rid of it."
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