OTTAWA – As long as the league-run Phoenix Coyotes remain without an owner, there is bound to be plenty of speculation about the future of the franchise.
Gary Bettman just wishes it wasn’t so.
The process of trying to sell the team to a buyer with deep enough pockets and the ability to work out a lease deal with officials in Glendale, Ariz., has been complicated by the outside conjecture — and the NHL commissioner couldn’t help but notice the reports earlier this week that he has been in negotiations to move the Coyotes to Quebec City (something he says isn’t true).
“It doesn’t help because it creates dynamics, it creates expectations, there’s political processes, it gets fans either excited or upset depending on the report,” Bettman said Wednesday night during a sitdown between periods of the Penguins-Senators game.
“None of it is constructive. We’ve maintained all along that when we have something to say definitive we’ll say it. Until that point, anything else is a distraction.”
There seems to be even more of a cloud of uncertainty around the Coyotes than usual with general manager Don Maloney and coach Dave Tippett both without contracts beyond the end of the season.
The NHL has owned the team since buying it out of bankruptcy in 2009.
Asked directly if there’s any chance of the Coyotes being moved before next season, Bettman replied: “We hope not.”
The commissioner wasn’t overly enthusiastic when asked about the viability of Quebec City as a hockey market even though ground has already been broken there on a new arena. He is no doubt aware that any comments to the contrary would stoke even more of the speculation he’d prefer to eliminate entirely.
“We haven’t created any views other than it appears they’re going to build a building,” said Bettman. “If the circumstances were right at some point in time — it’s something if we were looking to either expand or relocate — we’d have to take a look at.”
Bettman and deputy commissioner Bill Daly visited Scotiabank Place on Wednesday as part of their annual tour around the league’s 30 cities. The pair has quietly slipped into the background since the end of the lockout in mid-January, but they remain extremely busy.
In addition to the ongoing Phoenix situation, there is a schedule to finalize for the 2013-14 season — one that will see divisional realignment, six outdoor games and a possible break for the Sochi Olympics in February.
However, no agreement for that event has been signed off on just yet. That will have to happen very soon if NHL players are to continue participating in the Games.
“We need to know what we’re doing with the Olympics next year to issue our schedule, so it’s important that we make a decision one way or the other by the time we normally release our schedule (at the end of June),” said Daly.
The current laundry list of items in need of attention certainly beats the work Bettman and Daly were dealing with throughout the summer and fall.
At times during the lockout, the NHL’s top executives were targeted with pointed and personal comments from players.
However, Bettman considers it all water under the bridge now and indicated that he’s had a “variety of conversations” which left him believing that the players feel the same way.
“Whether or not I happened to meet with a player who was particularly outspoken and we had an ‘It’s all OK and it’s an all good conversation’ or phone calls I’ve gotten from players saying `You know what, it was kind of emotional‘ — it’s really a non-issue,” said Bettman.
The NHL has rebounded impressively from its fourth work stoppage in 20 years.
Television numbers, ticket sales and revenues were surprisingly strong in the truncated 48-game regular season.
That comes as no surprise to Bettman, who predicted as much during the four-month lockout.
On Wednesday night, he cited a number of factors — “the unpredictability, the excitement, the entertainment, the speed, the skill and, just as important how terrific our players are” — for why fans remain so drawn to the sport.
“It’s not a question of expectation and it’s not about winning fans back, what it’s about is the connection that our fans have to the game,” said Bettman. “It’s why they’re the best fans in all of sports. They’re more avid, they’re more connected than the fans of any other sports and that’s not something we take for granted.
“It’s not something that we put into a calculation when you go through a difficult period – when you go through a difficult period you’ve got to make the decisions that are necessary for the long-term health of the game.”