NHL wary of fiscal free fall

RANDY SPORTAK, SUN MEDIA

, Last Updated: 8:39 AM ET

Gary Bettman insists he's not oblivious to the economic woes when he preaches the sky's not falling.

It's just the NHL commissioner said the league can't get a grasp of it yet.

Bettman said yesterday before watching the Calgary Flames-Chicago Blackhawks game at the Saddledome the first opportunity to gain a handle is coming soon.

"The first signs to look for will be the spring selling season and playoff tickets," Bettman said.

"That will be an indication of what the following season will look like. At the league office, we're looking at all sorts of contingencies as to how deal with it, and the clubs have been encouraged to do the same thing."

He shared face time yesterday in Calgary with season-ticket and suite holders -- some 500 fans -- to get the pulse of the Flames franchise.

His assessment was "happiness and contentment with the game and the Flames."

"If you think back to 1999, 2000, what a difference eight years can make," Bettman said.

"The sense I got is the fans in Calgary are as passionate as ever about this franchise."

His detractors would see that as more rose-coloured glasses, and he bristles at the idea he has no grasp of what's to come while Canada and the U.S. face a recession.

"This season, we're going to be fine. Revenues are up. Attendance is up," Bettman said.

"Part of that may be the strength of the game. Would it suggest to me that we're counter-cyclical? Maybe not. It may be our selling cycle pre-dated the economic downturn. We had a couple of people come in -- a Canadian economist and a U.S. banker -- to talk to the board last week. And the sense was this economic downturn will get worse and it'll last for a while -- maybe 18 months, at least -- but beyond that, the only thing they were certain about was uncertainty."

There are signs of tough times. Clubs like Florida and Los Angeles are selling tickets in inexpensive ways. In Columbus, you can receive four tickets by buying four 12-pack cases of soda.

Bettman believes those deals stem from teams needing to draw back fans while they struggle on the ice.

"Florida and Columbus are both playing better, and I think over time, if the team continues to perform, the fans will come back," he said.

Among the other subjects Bettman discussed:

- More regular-season games in Europe (there are whispers the Flames may be interested).

- The theory the Sean Avery incident in Calgary was publicity from new sources, and can't be all bad: "I've seen some suggestion we shouldn't be so resistant to this type of exposure, and my answer is we don't have any interest in this type of exposure."

- Plans for a new rink in Calgary: "This team is in need of a new rink. I know they have a process in place and they're working towards having a new rink by 2014.


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