Six million dollar man

ERIC FRANCIS -- Calgary Sun

, Last Updated: 9:10 AM ET

First Gary Bettman thanked Calgary's fans for their passion, patience and for coming back.

Then he gave them roughly six million reasons to believe the core of the first-place Flames could be kept intact for years to come.

In town to salute Flames owner and NHL chairman of the board Harley Hotchkiss last night, the commissioner said the NHL's on- and off-ice success this year will translate into a significantly higher salary cap next season.

And that means Darryl Sutter's efforts to keep current and budding superstars long-term will be easier down the road.

"We think it could go up to the mid-40s," said Bettman of a cap currently pegged at $39 million US.

"If it does, the entire range of $16 million (between the ceiling and floor) moves with it. The view is any team within that range can be competitive, unlike the $20-million to $80-million spread we had before. It enables each team to have the flexibility it needs with young players and returning players.

"Teams are going to have to make those judgments."

Pointing out attendance league-wide is up 3% as opposed to sharp declines in fan support for baseball and basketball following their most recent labour hiccups, Bettman is confident league-wide revenues are on pace to exceed the $2.036 billion range of 2003-04, opening the door for the higher cap.

With Miikka Kiprusoff a frontrunner for the Vezina Trophy and Dion Phaneuf a contender for the Calder, the increased leg room should have the effect of allowing teams to lock up such star players, even with more liberal free agency.

And as Bettman explained, it can do so without breaking the bank of small-market teams on either side of the border.

"It's all based on increased revenues," said Bettman, who braced last fall for revenues to dip as low as $1.6 billion.

"Players get 54 percent of the revenues, which are all calculated in U.S. dollars, so if the Canadian dollar goes down, the players get less. The playing field has been levelled."

Citing an impressive array of stats speaking to the increased speed, scoring and excitement the league's new rules and officiating have created, Bettman said there's little chance of any significant policy

changes this summer. He says the top two complaints he hears from fans, especially in Western Canada, revolves around bumping the number of shootout players from three to five and a schedule that sees Eastern clubs here every three years.

"When I talk to Flames fans, there are some Eastern teams they'd like to see but not others -- you can't pick and choose," said Bettman.

"If we decide we want more inter-conference play, then we have to sacrifice the rivalries. It's a balancing act. We'll probably do it again next season and then we'll take a deep breath, have a talk with our fans and see where we go from there. There's no question there'll be shootouts -- it's just whether we go from three to five."

Pressed on a number of other issues, Bettman said only a few minor adjustments are needed to ensure NHL's players will compete in the Vancouver Olympics.

"The Olympic schedule will have to adapt to us, not the other way around," said Bettman. "Our game is better than the Olympics. We don't trap, there's more scoring, the play is wide open and more exciting."

Tough to argue, especially if you're Canadian.


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