NHL commissioner Gary Bettman visited South Florida Friday. (AP Photo/The Canadian Press, Chris Young)
By Dave Joseph for floridapanthers.com
SUNRISE – Gary Bettman retraced his day.
Beginning at 6:30 a.m., the NHL Commissioner’s whirlwind Friday through South Florida included meetings with city and county officials, Chairman of the Board and general partner Alan Cohen, current and prospective business partners, Season Seat Owners, Sunrise Sports & Entertainment staff, and South Florida and New York media.
There was also time to squeeze in a tour of the 50,000 square foot expansion project at IncredibleIce, the Panther’s official practice facility in Coral Springs.
Now, 11 hours later, after glancing at 19,000 seats that would be filled close to capacity at BankAtlantic Center in less than two hours, Bettman sat in an empty suite and said of his day; “There is a great deal of interest in hockey in South Florida, there’s a great deal of interest in the Panthers, and there’s a genuine excitement over how well the team is playing.”
With the Panthers one of the hottest teams in the NHL (11-3-3 since Jan. 1) and only three points out of fourth in the Eastern Conference going into Friday’s game against the Rangers, Bettman spent the day in South Florida to talk hockey, the possibility of the Panthers opening next season overseas, and to compliment the Panthers organization.
“I’ve been in South Florida where I’ve seen excitement over how the team is playing, but not that recently and not to the extent we’re seeing now,” he said. “Obviously, the team has come through a period of rebuilding and I think the benefits and the results of the process that (GM) Jacques Martin has taken them through is paying dividends.”
Asked about reports the Panthers would open next season in Europe, Bettman said; “There is a lot of talk about that…none of which I’m going to either confirm or deny.”
“We are working on our games for next year,” he added. “We have been talking to the Panthers, but beyond that we’re not ready to suggest that commitments either way have been made.”
When asked what goes into deciding what NHL teams might open the season outside North America, Bettman said; “We try to look for match-ups and participation we think will make good sense and is logistically doable.”
“There are a lot of factors that go into how we do the schedule, how we travel teams, who the match-ups are. It’s not an exact science but it’s not something we simply throw darts at, either.”
Bettman also dismissed reports that teams in the so-called ‘Sun Belt’ were having financial problems.
“I think the talk about the, quote, ‘Sun Belt’ unquote, teams is using too broad a brush to paint the picture,” he said. “The fact of the matter is we’re doing fine in the Sun Belt. We have some franchises that can be doing better, but we have many franchises that have established roots, traditions and have performed extremely well. And I don’t think it’s fair or appropriate for there to be talking about Sun Belt teams.
“There were days not to far in the past of traditional market teams in bankruptcy. There have been original six teams that have under-performed tremendously and have come back quickly. I don’t think it’s appropriate to be taking a snapshot and suggesting that, quote, ‘Sun Belt’ unquote, teams are in trouble because that’s not the case in terms of that broad of characterization.”
Regarding talk whether the NHL should abolish fighting in light of the Don Sanderson tragedy, Bettman said it will depend on what conclusion and recommendations are made in March at the GM’s meeting.
“My own sense, from talking to all our of constituent groups – players, executives and hockey fans – is people understand the role of fighting in the game and I don’t think there’s an appetite to abolish it,” he said.
On whether the NHL would participate in the 2014 Winter Olympics in Sochi, Russia, or stop participation after next year’s Games in Vancouver, Bettman said; “There haven’t been any discussions after the 2010 Olympics and there may not be for years because we have over four years to make decision.”
“We’ll sit with the players association and figure out what makes sense in terms of international competition moving forward,” he added.