Gary Bettman talks Calgary arena, Seattle expansion ticket drive, future Olympics

NHL commissioner Gary Bettman says there’s been no new talks with Flames ownership, because they’re no longer pursuing a new arena, and the organization's financial situation has been deteriorating for several years.

NHL commissioner Gary Bettman spoke to the media Friday in Calgary as he continued his western Canadian trip through Alberta and Vancouver.

He touched on topics ranging from Olympic participation, to the arena situation in the city, the Seattle expansion process and the prospect of changing the NHL’s playoff format.

Here are the highlights from Bettman’s press conference.

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NO UPDATE ON THE CALGARY ARENA SITUATION

Right out of the gate, Bettman said he didn’t have any breaking news and that his availability in the city was strictly due to the fact he was on a trip through that part of the country. Bettman repeated the same talking points he’s hit on in the past because, as he stated, “there’s nothing going on” since the Flames pulled out of arena talks in September.

• “I completely concur with the position that the Flames have assumed because I don’t see any point either in there being any talks,” Bettman said. “They’re no longer pursuing a new arena or a new development because they don’t see any prospect of that happening on any terms that make any sense.”

Naturally, some questions turned to the long-term outlook for this situation if a new arena deal is never agreed on.

• “I’m not here to issue any threats,” the commissioner said. “It’s clear that this is the oldest building in the league. It’s clear that the team needs a new building. By the way, Calgary is a great market, great fans here, but the building is as important a factor as anything else. The team’s competitive situation, financial stability, is obviously being impacted with each season they stay here (at the Saddledome). This used to be a top-10 team (in generating revenue). Calgary is one of our great markets, but again the building is the issue. This is a top-10 team. It used to write a check for revenue sharing, for the last couple of years they have been receiving checks. The checks are getting bigger, which means the situation financially continues to deteriorate and that will effect ultimately the competitiveness, I suppose, of the organization. But they have said, the organization has, that they’re going to do the best they can for as long as they can.

“I want to be clear about this: a lot of the public rhetoric concerning this involving some of my previous statements, every statement I’ve made has been in response to a question, so I’m being very careful in answering the questions because I’m not trying to precipitate a debate on this visit. I’m here because I try to get everywhere. I’m not here to beat the drum on a new building. The situation is what it is and you all know what it is.”

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For years, Bettman and the NHL have stood committed to keeping the Coyotes in Phoenix, including a period in which they owned the team. The Atlanta Thrashers, meanwhile, were moved relatively quickly to Winnipeg after that franchise had its own struggles. The question was asked to Bettman how important it is to have strong and stable franchises in Canada.

• “Of course it’s important (to have stable Canadian franchises),” he said. “We had the Canadian Assistance Plan back before the current collective bargaining system when the league wasn’t really in an economic position to do that, we recognized the strength of the Canadian franchise … and history is full of situations where we’ve been successful in keeping franchises in place and where we haven’t been successful. It’s unfortunate when we’re not successful, but we try to be successful.”

RESPONSE TO A VERY SUCCESSFUL SEATTLE SEASON-TICKET DRIVE

Bettman spoke in Calgary one day after it was revealed the Oak View Group had collected over 25,000 ticket deposits in its ticket drive, including 10,000 in the first 12 minutes. It was the first step towards bringing an NHL expansion team to the U.S. Pacific Northwest.

• “They have begun what looks like an amazing expression of interest. We’re aware of it,” Bettman noted. “Obviously, that’s one of the many factors that we have to evaluate as we go through the expansion process. And other than the ticket drive, which obviously didn’t seem like it’s taking a whole lot of time, we’re in the infancy of the process. So there are some boxes we have to evaluate and check before the board gets anywhere close to having to make a decision.”

Bettman and the league have had a past relationship with Jerry Bruckheimer, one of the potential owners of a Seattle franchise, and the commissioner was asked if that familiarity helps at all.

• “In terms of the process, I’m not sure how familiar any of them were with doing a season-ticket drive like this. My guess is they’ve consulted with Winnipeg and Las Vegas, among others, to get a sense of how they did their ticket drives and used the benefit of that experience for them to initiate what they did yesterday.”

 
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THE FUTURE OF OLYMPIC PARTICIPATION

Though the NHL did not participate in the 2018 Olympics in South Korea, there is some belief the league would be more interested in returning to the Beijing Games in 2022, given their interest in the Chinese market. The NHL played games in China this season and will do so again next season as they work on making inroads into a huge, untapped market.

On Friday, Bettman was re-iterated that the league had no regrets about skipping Pyeongchang and was non-committal on Beijing.

“It’s a long way off, we haven’t thought about it,” Bettman said of 2022 participation. “We are perfectly comfortable with having not been at these Olympics. When you look at the last three weeks of our season, the individual performances, the runs some of our teams have been on, the intensity of our regular season right now, and the races, the trade deadline, all of that, including the very competitiveness of our season, would have been put in jeopardy. I think the league made a good decision and I’m not going to predict what’s going to be in the future, while we’re very focused on helping to build the game of hockey in China, in Asia. I’m not sure whether or if participation in the 2022 Olympics is an essential or important part of that. It’s a long way off. I’m not sure.”

In fact, Bettman has suggested moving the hockey tournament to the Summer Olympics so that the league could participate without interrupting its season. He said that while he and, he expects, the league would be amenable to that route, it’s not a movement that’s generating much momentum at this point.

“It gets no traction whatsoever,” Bettman said of the summer idea. “When I ask it I almost get the sense that there’s a ridicule somewhere in the reaction.”

EXPAND THE PLAYOFF FORMAT?

Finally, Bettman was asked if there was any desire from the league to change the playoff format and allow more teams entry as the league expands to an anticipated 32 teams in the coming years.

“Not from my standpoint and not from most of the governors I’ve talked to,” he said. “We think what we have right now is really pretty terrific. The regular season is compelling, exciting, unpredictable and we have great races. We’re going to have teams that make or don’t make the playoffs by a point or two. I think what we’ve got right now is pretty good. And I believe most of our clubs feel the same way. And the feedback we get from fans from the research we do is similar. I don’t foresee a change.”

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