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Ottawa gets thumbs up from NHL commissioner

by Rob Brodie / Ottawa Senators
NHL commissioner Gary Bettman has been impressed with the efforts of the Senators and Ottawa to put on 2012 NHL All-Star Weekend, saying "the buzz is palpable" in the city (Photo by Andre Ringuette/NHLI via Getty Images).

Ottawa is earning a hearty two thumbs up from the National Hockey League's big boss.

NHL commissioner Gary Bettman couldn't be happier with the Senators' efforts in playing host to all-star weekend for the first time. With the two biggest events of this four-day hockey festival still to come — Saturday's 2012 Molson Canadian NHL All-Star Skills Competition (4 p.m., CBC) and Sunday's 2012 Tim Horton's NHL All-Star Game (7 p.m., CBC) — Bettman has been duly impressed by the way the capital has taken to the mid-season showcase event.

"The reception we have received so far has been nothing short of spectacular," he said. "The buzz is palpable, the hospitality is great and all the various things that we had planned are coming together nicely. Fans here are always phenomenal and this weekend is going to be no exception."

Not that he's the least bit surprised by any of it all, given the passion for the game in Hockey Country. Fans have been flocking in droves to Scotiabank NHL Fan Fair at the Ottawa Convention Centre — the final turnstile count is expected to land between 30,000 and 40,000 — and it's clear the city has embraced the festivities.

"I’ve been here countless times and know first hand how great a hockey market and how great a place Ottawa is," said Bettman.

Those words are sweet validation for Senators owner Eugene Melnyk, who worked hard for years to convince Bettman to grant his franchise an all-star game. Ottawa successfully played host to the NHL Entry Draft in 2005 and 2008, but Melnyk dearly wanted to deliver on a promise he made to Sens fans when he bought the team in 2003. His task became easier with the arrival of the new convention centre on the banks of the Rideau Canal.

"We had to convince him early on," Melnyk said of his discussions with Bettman. "We said, 'Look, we can put on big events. We'll show you.' And we have put on huge global events like the world juniors (in 2009, which produced record-shattering attendance). Our only problem was we didn’t have the convention space yet. As soon as that happened, it made things a lot easier for us."

During his annual state of the league all-star address today at the Fairmont Chateau Laurier, Bettman said he's been "extraordinarily pleased" with the weekend festivities in Ottawa and lauded Melnyk and the Senators organization for delivering on everything they'd promised.

"When Ottawa was awarded the game in September 2010, Eugene promised to deliver a once-in-a-lifetime special experience to celebrate our sport," said Bettman, who added praise to the "thousands of volunteers" who assisted the effort. "I believe that his organization has followed through and this is turning out to be a truly spectacular weekend for our players and our guests and our fans, particularly those who reside here in Ottawa."

If things had gone as originally planned, Senators forward Colin Greening and his girlfriend, Tissy, would be spending the NHL all-star weekend in New Orleans. Instead, they're in the winter wonderland that is Ottawa for those four days.

Even Greening admits surprise that his college sweetheart is happy with that turn of events.

"As soon as I told her (about the all-star invite), I thought there was going to be a bit of an argument," Greening said with a grin. "But I tell you, she was very supportive. She said 'I'm coming' and she's been here the entire time to take it in. It's been great to have her here."

Tissy lives in Chicago, where she's employed by Groupon, the multi-million dollar company that offers discounted group-buying deals to consumers. Her client base includes five Canadian markets — Calgary, Edmonton, Winnipeg, Regina and Saskatoon — but she hardly expected to be spending this weekend north of the border. But Greening, who hasn't seen his girlfriend in about six weeks, is happy to share this career highlight with her.

"She’s getting used to it and she’s becoming more understanding," said Greening. "She’s been a real trooper about this stuff. We had three trips last year that got botched up and we had to change our plans. That’s one of the best things about her, that she’s open to that. Even right now, when our New Orleans trip got put off to the side ... I told her we’re going after the season. But it’s still a shock when you tell her ‘yeah, we’re not going to a warm climate, we’re going to snow and slush in Ottawa.’ But she's always been very supportive."

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