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Bettman says NHL can be even stronger in 2010-11

by Shawn P. Roarke
TORONTO -- NHL Commissioner Gary Bettman addressed the Molson World Hockey Summit Wednesday afternoon, painting a picture of a league enjoying robust good health.

"More people are playing (the game) than ever before," Bettman said during a 30-minute question-and-answer session moderated by TSN and NBC analyst Pierre McGuire. "We have come off an absolutely outstanding season, starting with the game on the ice and all of the various measurements that come with that -- be it online usage, television ratings, attendance or the like. This was a really strong season for us."

The 2009-2010 season was, indeed, one of the League's most memorable. It started with the Chicago Blackhawks playing a pair of regular-season games in Finland against Florida and ended with the Original Six team celebrating the winning of the Stanley Cup. In February, the Olympics -- fueled by the talents of NHL players -- took hockey's center stage for a two-week period of unforgettable accomplishments in Vancouver that culminated with Sidney Crosby willing the host Canadians to a gold medal with his overtime winner against the United States. A wild sprint to the regular-season finish followed the Olympics, one that saw eventual the Stanley Cup finalist Philadelphia Flyers qualify for the tournament on the season's final day.

And in those playoffs, upsets ruled the day as the Flyers and Montreal Canadians knocked off a string of favored teams -- including the first-place Washington Capitals -- to play in the Eastern Conference Final for the right to play the Blackhawks for the Cup. Chicago's six-game win against Philadelphia in the Final -- delivering its first Cup championship in 49 years -- was sealed by an overtime goal from young superstar Patrick Kane in overtime of Game 6.

While it may be hard to top that perfect storm for hockey, Bettman said that remains his agenda, telling the delegates here that he wants to build on last season's successes to deliver an even more compelling product in a 2010-11 season that begins in less than two months.

"I'd like to take what may have been our strongest season ever and see it be even stronger this coming year," Bettman said. "Last year is history. We have to focus on what is going on next year."

Bettman says that focus is already well-developed, as evidenced by the introspection his Hockey Operations staff underwent with last week's 2010 NHL Research, Development and Orientation Camp Fueled by G Series here in Toronto. In a two-day session, Hockey Operations looked at a number of options to make the on-ice product even more attractive. Directed by former player Brendan Shanahan, the sessions looked at a variety of proposals, including hybrid icing, faceoff variations and overtime options designed to reduce the number of shootouts.

"Coming off, as we discussed early on, what may have been one of our strongest, if not our strongest season ever; coming off an era where the game being played is perhaps as good as it has ever been, we thought this would be an opportune time to actually look at the game and experiment with things that might actually improve the game and look at things that might be completely absurd, but satisfying ourselves that they were absurd," said Bettman.

"To do that and to look at the game when you are not addressing a particular problem or a crisis is really the best time to be able to do it. That's why companies spend hundreds of millions on research and development. You want to stay ahead of the curve and see what is next."

Bettman said the NHL already has seen the benefits of looking ahead in the adoption of the rules package instituted for this season that will significantly reduce the number of hits to the head players experience during NHL play. Those rules came about after the League looked comprehensively at concussion data and the way the NHL game had evolved and arrived at a solution to reduce the amount of dangerous hitting that had crept into the game.

"It became abundantly clear to us that a lateral or blindside hit where the primary point of contact or the focus of the hit was the head -- even if delivered by a shoulder -- was devastating and we needed, based on how the game evolved, to get it out of the game," Bettman said.

Bettman believes the impact of removing those hits will be one of the main storylines of the 2010-11 season.
"I'd like to take what may have been our strongest season ever and see it be even stronger this coming year.  Last year is history. We have to focus on what is going on next year." -- NHL Commissioner Gary Bettman

"We think, based on the research -- and I don't want to oversell this -- that the rule change made by the general managers could reduce concussions by up to 50 percent," Bettman said. "If that is the case, it will have been a dramatic step forward."

The 2010-11 season begins in Europe, the fourth-straight season the League has opened its regular season abroad. This October features the most ambitious of those European excursions as six NHL teams travel abroad to play 13 games, including six-regular season games. The Boston Bruins and Phoenix Coyotes open with a two-game set in Prague, while the Carolina Hurricanes and Minnesota Wild play two games in Finland. The Columbus Blue Jackets and San Jose Sharks, meanwhile, play a pair In Stockholm.  The highlights of the exhibition schedule include Boston's trip to Belfast to play a UK Elite League select team, Carolina's game in St. Petersburg, Russia against SKA of the Kontinental Hockey League and Phoenix's trip to Latvia to play the KHL's Dinamo Riga franchise.
"If you are going to respond to the interest in our game, having a regular presence with games that count is a way that we think connects us," Bettman said. "The theory behind it is with about 25 percent of our players from outside North America, we'd like the hockey fans in those countries to see how our game is really played.

"We think this is a good way to encourage the development of hockey in Europe, to let people see the game played at the highest level. It's actually that something that our players and our teams enjoy doing."

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