-- NHL Commissioner Gary Bettman spoke to the media before Game 1 of the 2009 Stanley Cup Playoffs Saturday afternoon, covering the state of the League. And the state is clearly positive and upbeat.
"Despite the economic downturn, we have set records for attendance, revenues and ratings," Bettman said.
All of the NHL's television partners have enjoyed ratings boosts this season, including five percent for CBC, 12 percent for TSN and 25 percent for Versus. After going up 11 percent during the regular season, NBC is trending 20 percent higher for the Playoffs.
Overall, Bettman said League revenues will be up four percent: "That's four percent of real revenue at a time when any revenue growth is an achievement."
Bettman said when the economy took its slide, he set two parameters as indicators of how the League could gauge next season's prospects. One would be playoff tickets sales and the other season-ticket renewals for 2009-2010.
"We are over 100 percent capacity for the playoffs ticket sales and renewals are approaching 80 percent and it's not even June.
Bettman also explained that the back-to-back games that will launch this rematch Stanley Cup Final between Pittsburgh and Detroit is by design and was approved by all club general managers last year as a way to "create an intense start" to the Stanley Cup Final.
Bettman addressed the Phoenix Coyotes
situation by noting "the team was never in jeopardy" and was "literally 20 minutes away from being fixed" through an offer to buy the team that would keep the club in Glendale, Ariz., when instead Jerry Moyes filed for bankruptcy.
Bettman said "the issue here" is about league rules and policies and "that's why it is significant" that the NFL, NBA and Major League Baseball all filed briefs supporting the NHL position on potential relocation of a franchise through a purchase. The Coyotes matter is "not NHL-only, U.S. vs. Canada, Phoenix vs. Hamilton (Ont.) and certainly not personal."
What's more, Bettman added that in regard to any media reports or speculation about other franchises "no club is in jeopardy."
Bettman said the "game on the ice" has benefited from the League's modification of rules and officiating standards and that perhaps not enough credit goes to League officials such as Colin Campbell and Mike Murphy in Hockey Operations. He was happy to quote Detroit goalie Chris Osgood
on the subject.
"I think the rule changes they put into the game you're now reaping the rewards of them," said Osgood during Friday's Media Day. "Where the star players are able to skate. There's not as much clutching and grabbing. Guys are able to go to the net. I think the game, the physicality of the game is still there. They allow that. And I think the game is at its best spot it's ever been in the history of the game."
The Commissioner addressed the salary cap for next season when discussing revenues.
"For purposes of the cap and escrow, revenues will probably be flat due to the decline during the year of the Canadian Dollar. Though it appears it's rebounding again, so that is something that will have to be taken into account next year.
But we believed, and that belief was borne out that the players' salary escrow was higher than it needed to be, and we'll continue to talk to the Players' Association on plans for next season. For next season the Cap, I am guessing at this point, will either be flat or down 5 percent, and that will be depending on how the Players' Association wants to focus on the projections for next year and the 5 percent escalator or not."
Another topic that Bettman discussed with the media was any potential changes to the League's policies regarding out-of-season drug testing.
"The Players' Association has not been ready to embrace it," said Bettman, responding to a reporter's question. "While [NHLPA Director] Paul Kelly
has indicated that he is supportive, and I take him at his word, he believes he needs some time to persuade his members to go along with it.
"But I think we need to be more comprehensive both in terms of the calendar on which we test, and the substances for which we're testing. Both Paul and I testified in Congress not too long ago that we both believed in having the strongest possible program. I still believe it. I want it. But I need the Players' Association to be a willing partner in that regard."