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by Staff Writer / Pittsburgh Penguins

The NHL isn’t just back – it’s thriving.

Commissioner Gary Bettman is extremely pleased with the NHL’s return to the ice and how its fans have embraced it, especially in Pittsburgh.

“It’s great to see a full house and an excited crowd,” said Bettman, who attended the Penguins home opener on Oct. 8.

A labor dispute wiped out the entire NHL season last year, but Bettman points out that was an unfortunate consequence of securing the league’s long-term stability with a new Collective Bargaining Agreement.

“This is where we had hoped to be when we got through this. We had hoped we wouldn’t have to go through the year we went through to get to this point,” he said. “But, in terms of having the right economic structure, having the right competitive balance, the stability we needed, the rule changes and, most importantly, a partnership with our players both on and off the ice, this is where we knew we had to get. The future of the game depended on it.”

Many of the off-ice changes were directed at helping small-market teams like the Penguins compete with the large-market clubs. As a result, the Penguins were able to be active players in the free-agent pool and acquire personnel like Sergei Gonchar, Ziggy Palffy, John LeClair, Andre Roy, Steve Poapst and Lyle Odelein. Those moves, along with the additions of Sidney Crosby through the draft and Jocelyn Thibault via a trade, re-energized fans in Pittsburgh. Instead of struggling to stay afloat, the Penguins could move forward.

“We have a long history with Pittsburgh over the last few years. Every step of the way, we’ve believed Pittsburgh has a market and is the type of place where we belong,” Bettman said. “We needed to make the changes we made in order to ensure a franchise like Pittsburgh would have a future. In that regard, it’s great to see the fan reception here.”

Bettman is thrilled to see Crosby, hyped for years as the best NHL prospect since the Penguins’ Mario Lemieux hit the ice in 1984, thrive in Pittsburgh under the tutelage of Lemieux and the team’s bevy of veterans.

“The fact that he’s here makes it a wonderful story,” Bettman said. “It revitalized the franchise. The fact that Mario and ‘The Kid’ are together is a great story.”

Many tab Crosby as the face of the “new” NHL. However, Bettman thinks it’s unrealistic to put that sort of pressure on an 18-year-old right away, even though he believes Crosby is a great ambassador for the game.

“He’s terrific. He handles himself beautifully. He says all the right things,” Bettman said. “But, you know what, he doesn’t need too much pressure put on him too soon. Let him get his NHL legs first.”

Nevertheless, Crosby will play an important role in how the NHL markets itself over the next few years.

“What we’re going to do is make sure people know who [the players] are. It’s about telling stories and connecting fans to the game and to the players,” Bettman said. “That, again, isn’t going to happen overnight either. It’s a step-by-step process and the players have to begin to establish themselves more and more. It’s not just about hype; it’s about what takes place on the ice. I think with the game strengthening on the ice, the product being as good as it is and as entertaining as it is, that will begin to feed into getting the players greater recognition and we will promote and market around that.”

Right now, the NHL is focused on its loyal fan base. As a token of its appreciation, the league gave out miniature replica Stanley Cups to fans at every team’s home opener.

“First and foremost, the emphasis has been to our fans – the fans that stuck with us over the past few years, particularly the last year,” Bettman said. “Once we’re comfortable that our existing fans are feeling good about the game, then you can think about making sure you’re expanding your fan base. We’re now in a period of reconnecting with our core fans and making sure we’re making it up to them.”

So far, the fans’ response has been overwhelmingly positive and people are flocking to arenas that were left dormant last year.

“Attendance has been great. The number of sellouts is gratifying. The places that didn’t sell out, they’re doing at least as well, if not better, than they did in 2003-04,” Bettman said. “Actually, based on all the indications we have so far, season ticket sales are up 3 percent and individual game sales are up pretty significantly as well. So, we think attendance should be comparable, if not better, than it was in 2003-04.

“So, the fans are coming back and the places that hadn’t sold out two years ago weren’t going to just sell out by snapping your fingers. But, it’s clear that the fans are responding to what we’ve accomplished in terms of re-jiggering our economics and our competitive balance and the rule changes. We’re delighted at the fan reaction because this was all about making it right for the fans.”

Bettman believes the fans are satisfied the NHL returned with an improved product despite a lost season rather than a quick-fix in a partial season.

“The only concern would have been if we came back with a Band-Aid because I don’t think the fans would have tolerated that,” he said. “In fact, they told us overwhelmingly that they wouldn’t, which is why we did what we had to do to make it right for the game. Now we have the right foundation.”

Rules changes promoting offense and a free-flowing game are a huge part of the league’s new foundation. While the NHL has promised to open up its game in the past, Bettman says the rules adaptations are here to stay now.

“If you looked at all the games [on opening night], clearly the officials are holding the standard which we want and, clearly, the players are adjusting. If anybody thought that this was something we could accomplish overnight, I think they were unrealistic in their expectations,” Bettman said. “But if you continue to watch the fact that the officials are holding the standard and the players are adjusting, we’ll have this type of game with fewer penalties and that’s what we want. Five goals in one period, the number of games we’ve seen where there’s been a turnaround in the lead and a comeback in the third period, the flow in the game when there aren’t penalties being called – it’s great. It’s clearly heading in the right direction. The combination of rule changes is working the way we want it.”

While there were a lot of penalties called in the first month or so of play, Bettman expects the players to adapt, which will make the game even quicker.

“In order to let them play, you have got to hold the standard. In other words, to give the skill players the room to move with the puck, to set up plays, to get scoring chances and better flow – you’ve got to call it,” he said. “Let’s face it, players and coaches are so good at what they do that they are going to test the standard. When they understand that the standard is going to hold, they will adjust because our players and our coaches are that good and that will open the game up.”

All the NHL teams opened their seasons on the same date – Oct. 5. However, many wondered why the Penguins-Devils game was not opening night’s featured game on national television on the league’s new television partner, OLN, or why the game wasn’t scheduled a night earlier to showcase Crosby’s NHL debut.

“I get asked that question a lot and people really don’t understand that there were a lot of factors that went into it,” Bettman said. “Let’s take two steps back: When we issued the schedule in early July, we didn’t have a TV deal and we didn’t have a [Collective Bargaining Agreement] and we hadn’t had the [draft] lottery yet. So, we issued a schedule and we decided with all of those factors that we had to go with 15 games – we wanted all teams playing on the first night back.

“We then had our new partnership with OLN and it was impossible to move the game [up] and I think, in terms of OLN getting up and running in six weeks, that was a Herculean task. They wanted to operate out of a building they were most comfortable with [in Philadelphia] and because there were 28 other teams playing at the same time, the importance of that first game, in terms of audience, wasn’t going to have the same impact. So, I think people are making a little bit too much out of it.

“It was what it was and we dealt with all the factors and I am very comfortable with the decision that we made. We had a good first night on OLN. When you look at the ratings in some of our other markets, we had a strong rating here and we had strong ones in Detroit, Colorado – people were watching their own teams and we knew that was going to be the case.”

Fans keep telling Bettman the “new” NHL is an overall success.

“The typical thing I hear is that it’s great to be back and the game looks fabulous,” he said. “I get that overwhelmingly.”

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