Newark — Gary Bettman did most of the talking, but Donald Fehr made his point.
With the first game of the Stanley Cup Finals getting set to start on Wednesday the NHL commissioner painted a rosy picture regarding the league’s fortunes, playing up positives and dismissing the negatives.
It was hard not to accept that the NHL is a thriving business on a growth curve. Bettman said that the league’s revenues are at all-time high of $3.3 billion, playoff attendance has been at 102 per cent capacity league-wide and television viewership in the U.S. has grown thanks to the work of broadcast partner NBC.
At the back of the room was Fehr, the executive director of the NHLPA, listening intently.
The NHL is growing? That’s great, figures the man who represents the NHL players and those who receive a 57 per cent share of league revenues. He’s surely determined to see the players retain that share even as it’s expected owners will seek to adjust it down to about 50 per cent, consistent with the shares received by the NBA and NFL, concessions achieved through lockouts.
“We knew there would well over $3 billion [in revenues] I hadn’t heard $3.3 billion that’s higher than the estimates we’ve been working with,” said Fehr. “That’s great. To the extent the game can continue to grow that’s in everyone’s interest. We have to hope that continues and hope nothing interrupts it.”
And that is the elephant in the room.
The league has already served notice that they won’t extend the CBA and it’s widely expected that the league will lockout its players just seven years after losing an entire season to labour woes.
Fehr wasn’t doing any sabre rattling however, suggesting that the mood between the two parties is at the very least civil.
“I wanted to hear what Gary had to say,” said Fehr on his reason for sitting in on Bettman’s press conference. “You can watch it on TV, but it’s never quite the same.”
But he allowed that he heard nothing from Bettman that put him on edge with negotiations on the new CBA expected to begin at the end of June or early July.
“You don’t have the kind of atmosphere going in that necessary presaged a conflict, you don’t seem to have that,” said Fehr. “But whether you have it or not doesn’t necessarily predict the outcome.”
–Bettman also said he believes the league’s department of player safety, headed by Brendan Shanahan, “does appear to be working.”
–While not citing exact figures, the commissioner says the league experienced a “modest decline” in concussions during the 2011-12 regular season and playoffs.
“The first time in three years that this figure has declined,” he said.
“While there remains work to be done, it’s fair to say we are pleased with the progress and that player behaviour is beginning to change. We have seen countless examples this season in which players have altered their path to a hit or to a play.
“And the fact is with over 50,000 hits in a season, we’re in the low double-digits of the ones we will continue to work to get out of the game.”
– Greg Jamieson continues his efforts to purchase the Phoenix Coyotes, both on putting his equity package together and working with the city of Glendale on a building management deal.
A city vote next week on the management agreement may pave the way for the equity side of the equation, Bettman said.
Asked if the Coyotes would definitely be in Phoenix next season, the commissioner said: “I can’t say anything with 100 per cent certainty. So I think that the likelihood is, based on everything we know today, that the process should conclude successfully but it’s not something that I’m in a position to guarantee.”
He did acknowledge there is no Plan B, however, saying the hope was that the Jamieson takeover would work.
– New Jersey is working on refinancing its debt and raising equity and is “fairly confident” it can be completed in the next few weeks.
– A report that the Los Angeles Kings are for sale is untrue.
– Team officials have not shown an interest in shifting the final to a 2-3-2 series rather than the current 2-2-1-1-1.
– The benefits of competing in the Olympics have to be balanced against the impact being at the Games have has on the league. He called the Olympics a “joint decision that we (the NHL and NHLPA) need to do in the best interest of the game and the players.”
– A decision on the appeal by Phoenix forward Raffi Torres will be delivered “in the not too distant future.”
– He denied there was any divide in the relationship with the league and Wayne Gretzky. “I think when Wayne is more desirous or more comfortable being more involved, I think that’s great. He’s an important icon of this game. … Whatever he wants to do, I’m completely supportive.”