THE CANADIAN PRESS
CHICAGO — Gary Bettman seems more open than ever to bringing NHL franchises back to Winnipeg and Quebec City.
The NHL commissioner has been open about the league’s interest in the two cities recently. He says it has more to do with the economics of the sport than a change in his point of view.
"I think people tend to rewrite history," Bettman said Sunday night in an interview with The Canadian Press. "When the Nordiques and the Jets left, there was no building and no possibility of a building. And there was no one who wanted to own a team there any more. You can’t maintain a team in those circumstances.
"Those two factors have apparently (changed). In one case it’s been reversed and in another case they’re trying to reverse it."
Bettman is confident Winnipeg’s MTS Centre is capable of housing an NHL team and has heard from key officials in Quebec about their desire to build a new arena there.
Just as importantly, he has received serious interest from prospective owners. Mark Chipman and David Thomson of True North Sports and Entertainment made a serious pitch to buy the Phoenix Coyotes and return them to Winnipeg, and Bettman says he’s heard from more than one "substantial" group in Quebec.
Interestingly, a painful year for hockey fans could wind up being a major factor in the rebirth of big league hockey in the two cities. Bettman credits the salary cap system that came out of the 2004-05 lockout for making it possible.
"I don’t think you would have found owners interested in those markets without the current economic system," he said.
The most likely scenario that would see the number of Canadian NHL franchises increase is through a current team being moved. There is little appetite to try and expand beyond a 30-team league at this point.
The Coyotes remain the No. 1 target because of their uncertain ownership situation. Even though the Ice Edge group recently received exclusive negotiating rights with the city of Glendale on a new arena lease, the future of the franchise is still murky.
"Nothing’s done yet," said Bettman. "The process continues."
The commissioner openly discussed the possibility of the Coyotes moving to Winnipeg during his state of the league address at the outset of the Stanley Cup final.
He thought it was an important situation to address because of all the speculation that had been floating around.
"There was a possibility based on what was going on with the Coyotes that a franchise might be in play," said Bettman. "And Winnipeg had expressed interest over the last couple years and they were in a position to make a bona-fide offer. … The fact is — with the prospect of owners and the prospect of having, unlike when we left, a building that could be suitable for an NHL team — the dynamics had changed.
"With that franchise and that city there seemed to be at least the theoretical possibility that it could happen. Actually it was more than a theoretical possibility — it could have happened."
Instead, the wait continues. At least hockey fans in the Manitoba capital can take some consolation in the fact that they seem to be next in line.
Quebec City needs a new arena before it can seriously hope to re-enter the picture.
"I know the mayor, the premier and the prospective owners have been in various discussions," said Bettman. "My understanding is the building may have something to do with a future Olympic bid."
The longtime commissioner says he has several items on his to-do list and doesn’t plan on taking much time off over the summer.
"Maybe a long weekend," he said.
It’s been a successful Stanley Cup final for the league, with solid television ratings on both sides of the border and plenty of interest in two major markets.
During the second intermission of Game 3, Bettman went toe-to-toe with CBC host Ron MacLean during a heated interview that covered a variety of issues. The commissioner admitted members of his staff would prefer he didn’t take part in the annual session but he considers it important to fulfil requests from TV partners.
He’ll likely do it again in the future.
"Ron is free to conduct any interview and the type of interview he wants," said Bettman. "He sets the tone.
"I just wish the CBC and he would focus more on promoting this game and what our great athletes do night in and night out."
Even though Bettman has sometimes been portrayed as an enemy of Canadian hockey fans, he says he’s always treated well in the country.
There could be even more reason to visit in the coming years as the NHL is clearly keeping its eye on a couple familiar Canadian cities.
"We’re respectful of the fact that these are two markets that we’ve been in," said Bettman. "If under the right circumstances we could go back, that would be a good thing to do."