15 years ... and counting

GEORGE GROSS -- Sun Media

, Last Updated: 9:58 AM ET

Gary Bettman is here to stay.

The much-maligned NHL pater familias, who will celebrate his 15th anniversary at the helm of the world's best professional hockey league on Feb. 1, is not about to listen to his critics who would like the commissioner fired.

"I have a long-term contract, but I will continue my job as long as I'm passionate about it and as long as the owners would want me to stay," Bettman told me yesterday in an exclusive interview. "I'm pleased with the opportunity of co-operation we now have with the players, which is something that was a long time in coming."

The commissioner was extremely happy about the success of the outdoor game on Tuesday in Orchard Park, N.Y., which he considers one of the good things that happened to the league and something the NHL may pursue in the future.

"The responses has been terrific," the 55-year-old chief executive of the NHL said. "We might consider it for next year somewhere, but at the same time, you don't want to overdo it. We'll continue to monitor the responses."

He also was slightly concern about the drop, albeit minimal, of league scoring, which showed a decline of about 0.3 goals per game from last season. He figures that if there was a major concern, it will be discussed by the general managers and the NHL's competition committee.

What are Bettman's plans for the future, I asked.

"We need to be pro-active," he replied. "First of all, we have to embrace the digital media in order to reach a wider scope of fans. Secondly, again working with the players, we hope to open the season at an international venue. Thirdly, our fan capacity this year was 92%. We would like to improve on that wherever improvement is necessary."

The commissioner didn't name sites where the attendance could use an improvement, but it is quite obvious that he has the likes of Boston, Chicago, Nashville, Atlanta, Carolina and Florida in mind. It also is obvious he doesn't have to worry about Toronto, Montreal, Vancouver, Edmonton, Calgary and Ottawa.

Bettman didn't say it, but it seems quite logical that the NHL will pay a lot of attention to the use of performance-enhancing drugs and the punishment of guilty parties. Moreso by players whom "hanging judge" Colin Campbell may deem guilty of unnecessary roughness.

I hope that doesn't include his critics ...

MORE GIFTS TO BE WON

Besides all the gifts that have been listed in our coupons and could be won by donors to the Sun Variety Village Christmas Fund, additional gifts for the draw are Colin Lorimer's four green fees certificate to the Centennial Golf Club in Etobicoke (2 per winner) and two weekly passes to the Canadian Open golf championship, courtesy of the Royal Canadian Golf Association and its spokesman, Anthony Alfred.

The draw will be announced in the Sunday Sun on Jan. 6.

Thank you all for your contributions.

MONUMENTAL TASK

Torontonians Debra and Dave Bouskill made a New Year's resolution last year to race in this year's, 120-day Tour d'Afrique.

The 12,000-km race, which starts on Jan. 12, will challenge cyclists with extreme terrain, including the crocodile-infested shores of the Nile river, the sands of the Sahara Desert, the elephant highway in Botswana and the mountains of Kenya.

The couple will raise money to support development projects in the countries through which they travel.

ANYONE FOR TENNIS?

Mike Cvitkovic, who is beating the drums for Tennis Canada achievements, announced this year's national and international programs of president Michael Downey's organization.

They will have more than 55 national and international events planned throughout all 12 months of the year 2008. Due to the Olympic tennis tournament (Aug. 10-17), the men's Rogers Cup will be held in Toronto on July 19-27 at the Rexall Centre, while the women's Sony Ericsson WTA Tour will hold the Rogers Cup from July 26 to Aug. 3 at Uniprix Stadium in Montreal.

The next international event will be the Canada-Mexico Davis Cup tie, which will be held Feb. 8-10 in Calgary.


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