TORONTO -- Denying that the National Hockey League is in crisis, commissioner Gary Bettman says there won't be contraction of any of the ailing franchises in the 30-team group.
Bettman was in Toronto yesterday and didn't miss a Sun Media feature on six trouble spots in the league, almost all in the U.S. south. A combination of the sagging economy, poor fan interest, bad arena location and poorly run clubs is a situation similar to the 1930s, when the financially squeezed league went from 10 teams to six and on to thirty years of success. (See the feature on Page D6.)
Bettman said he was in talks with potential investors for the most troubled club, the Phoenix Coyotes, and said he only would get concerned about certain teams' futures if playoff tickets and subscriber renewals failed to take off in the spring.
He defended clubs such as the Florida Panthers, which have made tickets ridiculously easy to get and counted them as paid attendance.
But not once in his speech to a business crowd at the National Club, part of the Speakers Forum series, did he address the problem areas including Phoenix, Nashville, Florida, Tampa and Long Island, preferring to talk mostly about the all-star game and the comeback stories in Boston and Chicago. Afterward in a news conference, he claimed the Sun Media feature and similar stories were not the true picture.
"Anything that predicts dire consequences right now is exaggerated and overstated," Bettman said. "(Is there) uncertainty? Absolutely. Strength this year? We thought we would grow seven per cent. It will be five to six per cent. But it's real growth.
"Some teams are doing better than others. It's not unlike people who predicted there'd be just one team left in Canada when buildings were half empty in Vancouver, Edmonton and Calgary. People were all set to write off Pittsburgh, Ottawa and Buffalo when they were in bankruptcy and now they're doing very well. We believe in all 30 clubs and we believe they will all be fine."
Bettman was confident enough to say the Coyotes would be in place next year, with all their problems, including the inconveniently located arena in Glendale.
"The club is going to need a capital infusion and we're talking to a number of people who may be interested," he said. "Transactions involving tens of millions of dollars don't happen overnight, it's not like buying a car."
In Florida, first-time Panthers fans were getting free tickets for producing a state driver's licence and versions of the same story are being told elsewhere. But Bettman saw nothing wrong with that and cases such as Nashville, where ownership is set to buy unsold seats to reach the 14,000 game-night average needed for league revenue sharing.
"You have to look at the circumstances of every particular case," Bettman said. "If you had a business and you also owned a team and you were buying tickets for doing that business at fair market value, the (wallpapered ticket) practice you've been speculating about doesn't exist.
"I get the same question about whether ticket prices are too high. Every team makes a judgment in its own market as to what its prices and policies are to attempt to fill its building."
He said attendance is up nearly 2 per cent league-wide, but admitted much of the revenue growth this year was based on pre-season business. If there are problems this year or next, he noted the automatic lowering of the salary cap will help teams stay.
"The reason you relocate a franchise is when no one wants to own it in its current location, that it's not sustainable. I don't envision that being the case. Frankly, it's unfair to the fans of our existing franchises to suggest we may be moving.
"There's too much of an attempt to stereotype the Southern franchises. They don't understand why they've become the object of scorn and ridicule. You've had a Stanley Cup winner in Carolina (and Tampa), Dallas is doing well."