Bettman: Have patience

Gary Bettman supported the survival of small-market Canadian teams such as the Calgary Flames and...

Gary Bettman supported the survival of small-market Canadian teams such as the Calgary Flames and Edmonton Oilers at the time of the woeful Canadian dollar. (Sun Media/Rob Kruyt)

MIKE ZEISBERGER, SUN MEDIA

, Last Updated: 11:31 AM ET

NEW YORK -- Looking out from Gary Bettman's 15th-floor office in bustling midtown Manhattan, the breathtaking view, framed by an endless row of skyscrapers, allows you to see for miles and miles.

Not quite all the way to Canada, mind you.

Of course, many of the Bettman Bashers out there figure the NHL commissioner seems to turn a blind eye to anything north of the 49th parallel anyway.

To this increasingly vocal group that maintains Bettman is anti-Canadian, it doesn't seem to matter that he has continued to talk with Hamilton officials since Jim Balsillie's bid to move the Phoenix Coyotes to Steeltown died last month.

Or that, during the Coyotes trial, he pondered why the NHL would not at least touch base with Winnipeg in the event of the team's relocation, since that was the original birthplace of the franchise.

Or that he hosted a meeting a week ago with Quebec City Mayor Regis Labeaume, who wants to resurrect the Quebec Nordiques.

To these conspiracy theorists, Bettman's ultimate plan is to plop teams in Kansas City and Las Vegas one day while ignoring areas such as Winnipeg, Quebec City, and southern Ontario. It is a suggestion he vehemently denies.

"I'm sure there are people in Quebec City who would say if a team is moving to Canada, why should it be southern Ontario? Why shouldn't we get a team back?" Bettman says. "I'm sure there are people in Winnipeg who are saying the same thing. If the Coyotes move, I'm sure they say, "Why aren't the Coyotes coming back here now that we have a new arena?" And so, there will always be a debate as to where the right fit is.

"But to the extent people think I have this master list hanging on my office wall in terms of where we are going next, that is not the case.

"If the opportunity presents itself, then we will look at all the situations and try to make the best judgment.

"You can confirm for yourself ... there is no list on my wall. Search away, You can look in all the drawers also."

A quick glance around the room reveals family photos, impressive hockey pictures and paintings -- but no list.

That hardly is evidence enough to sway his detractors who paint him as anti-Canadian because he ultimately kept Balsillie from bringing the Coyotes to southern Ontario.

"For anyone that knows my record in respect to the Canadian franchises, that's simply not true," he explains. "I can't satisfy those who believe our intentions were other than straightforward of ensuring NHL rules and procedure. That's what this was about."

If that is the case, Mr. Commissioner, has the door opened up again on the prospect of a seventh team coming to Canada one day?

"The door has always been open (to Canada)," he explains. "What I've said consistently is, not that we plan on relocating, but if we relocate or if we expand, we are going to consider all of the opportunities in Canada that should be considered, assuming people want to own franchises in any one of the possible markets."

Bettman's backers point out how the commissioner supported the survival of small-market Canadian teams such as the Calgary Flames and Edmonton Oilers at the time of the woeful Canadian dollar. Or how he came to the aid of the Ottawa Senators when that cash-strapped organization was on financial pins and needles.

THIRST TO RETURN

As for Winnipeg and Quebec City, Bettman understands the thirst to return NHL hockey to those communities is as strong as ever.

"It's funny. People now say in both of those markets that there is more outcry now than there was (when the Nordiques and Jets moved) because everyone understood what happened because there were no plans for new arenas. Because there were concerns about corporate support, both teams had no choice because nobody wanted to own those teams in those markets any more. And when nobody wants to own the team, there is no choice but to move it."

Bettman says he met with Mayor Labeaume "because he asked for a meeting and we were interested in what he had to say."

As for his discussions with Hamilton, "I think it's safe to say the lines of communication will be better than they were."

Asked what his message would be to those Canadian communities longing for an NHL team, Bettman's message is simple: Patience.

"One of the great tragedies that happened over the summer with respect to the Coyotes and Hamilton and, before that, with respect to the Predators and Hamilton, is that expectations were built up," Bettman says. "I don't want to do that to people.

"The fact is, the lines of communications are open. We understand the possibilities but we're not in position to make any promises at this time other than: If we're going to be in a situation either by relocation or expansion where a franchise is a possibility, these are markets that are going to be looked at seriously."

Seriously.

MIKE.ZEISBERGER@SUNMEDIA.CA


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