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Friday, May 23, 2014
Bettman: NHL never been stronger

By Pierre LeBrun
ESPN.com

Gary Bettman
Gary Bettman has been at the helm of the NHL since February 1993.

NEW YORK -- The view from Gary Bettman's corner office on the 15th floor of NHL headquarters is as spectacular as they come, the beauty of Manhattan at its finest.

It's a view that perhaps parallels the current state of his league, devoid at the moment of the fires the NHL commissioner is used to putting out and basking in the glow of winning big at the Sports Business Awards this week.

The NHL was named sports league of the year, the Winter Classic in Ann Arbor, Michigan, won sports event of the year and Bettman, for the first time, took home sports executive of the year.

Dressed in jeans while sitting back comfortably in a chair, Bettman on Friday was hardly doling out I-told-you-so barbs.

Rather, he thought the recognition brought by those awards underlined the health of the game.

"The awards, to me, are a recognition of the game, the players, the governors, the people that work at the NHL and NHL Enterprises and at the clubs," Bettman told ESPN.com during a 60-minute interview in his office. "It's a recognition of the strength of our great game. That's really what it's about.

"We have a foundation that's never been stronger to grow on, and that's why we're growing. And it's based on a series of things that were decided and happened, some of which at the time were painful, but were part of getting to where we believed we needed to get if we were going to see the game prosper."

And because of where the NHL business currently stands -- long-term labor peace assured, rising revenues and an entertaining product on the ice, not to mention the rare balance of having stable ownership in 30 markets (well, for the most part) -- it begs the question that's been nagging at Bettman from media onlookers for the better part of the year: when is it time to expand?

Things are popping up, but we're not in an expansion process. Could we get to one at some point? Maybe.

-- NHL commissioner Gary Bettman

The answer remains status quo. No plans yet.

"Nothing has changed other than the well-chronicled visit to Seattle when we were in the neighborhood," Bettman said.

Bettman and NHL deputy commissioner Bill Daly met with Seattle city officials earlier this month. The story obviously generated a lot of buzz once it was leaked.

Bettman said since he was on the West Coast for playoff games in transit from Anaheim he figured he'd take advantage of the opportunity.

"We had a few hours to kill, we were in the neighborhood, so I figured I'd go to Seattle to find out what the building story was," Bettman said. "We weren't there campaigning, we weren't asking for anything, and that's been misreported. Based on the level of interest we're getting from lots of people in Seattle and a fair amount of uncertainty and confusion about the building, we decided 'Let's go find out for ourselves what the story is with the building.' And there's no prospect of a building right now."

Investor Chris Hansen has the rights with the city of Seattle to build a new arena, but he doesn't want to move ahead until he's secured an NBA franchise. He has no interest in owning an NHL team but has expressed the desire to have an NHL team owned by others as a tenant in his building.

"He doesn't seem prepared to build it until he gets some certainty on an NBA team," Bettman said. "The sense I get is he doesn't want to build a building just to have a tenant. And since he seems to have things tied up with the city for the next three years, give or take, there's no certainty about a building."

Unless the city changes its mind in terms of who can build a new arena, any talk of NHL expansion for now is simply that -- talk.

"The possibility of a new arena is at best uncertain," Bettman said. "And that's what we learned."

There's a new rink already being built in Quebec City, and earlier this month, plans were announced for a new MGM Arena in Las Vegas, a rink being fitted for both NHL or NBA teams.

"And there are people interested there," Bettman said of Vegas. "Things are popping up, but we're not in an expansion process. Could we get to one at some point? Maybe. But right now we're not focused on going through an expansion process."

In the more immediate future, the announcement of the return of the World Cup of Hockey should be made known. The event is rumored to be held in September 2015.

But if that's the case, doesn't the event need to be announced/formalized rather soon?

"The answer to your question is yes, it does need to get done quickly," Bettman said. "But that is something we do in conjunction with the Players' Association."

The World Cup is a co-run event between the league and the players. While Bettman wouldn't say, the clear inference here is that the league is waiting on the NHLPA to sign off on World Cup plans.

On the international front, there is still no word on future Olympic participation. Leaving Sochi, there was word that a decision would be made by the summer, but at this point, there's not much new there.

"When we were leaving Sochi, I said it was nice to be there, it was a nice experience, but we were focusing on the stretch run of the regular season and playoffs and we're not giving it any thought right now, and we haven't given it any thought. Nothing's percolating,'' Bettman said.

Rene Fasel Gary Bettman
No decision has been made about the NHL's future participation in the Olympics, Gary Bettman said.

One announcement that should come within the next month or two is next year's slate of outdoor games. There were a record six games held in the 2013-14 season, but that's going to be a one-time thing.

"We're not going to do as many games as we did this year," Bettman said. "We're obviously going to do more than one.

"This year we used those games in a variety of ways. Part of it was promoting us going into the Olympics, part of it was promoting it coming out. And doing it in New York [around the Super Bowl] with two games ... we had to do lots of stuff. Our people did an extraordinary job, but we really taxed things to the limit. But also, interestingly enough, the Olympic break let us set up for more games. So, it'll be more than one and less than six next season."

A plausible guess would be three or four outdoor games next season.

Another change on the horizon is the possibility of the draft lottery getting a face-lift.

"The GMs have asked us whether or not more teams should be eligible for the lottery result moving up more teams and whether or not the odds should be adjusted a little bit. That's something we're looking at," Bettman said.

Will it change in time for the June 2015 draft?

"Premature [to say]," Bettman said. "We haven't finished a proposal that's been circulated. ... I think if we're going to make an adjustment, it'll be that more picks are selected by the lottery and we might smooth out the odds a little. But again, that's not something we're at yet."

While we were sitting with Bettman in his office around the lunch hour, three floors below interim discipline chief Stephane Quintal was preparing for the Brandon Prust hearing. The interim tag will remain until after the season when a decision is made on whether Quintal will get the job full time or whether a new face will enter the picture. The league has not spoken to anybody about Brendan Shanahan's old job to this point.

"I think Stephane has done a very professional and good job," Bettman said. "Stephane stepping in is a testament to Brendan, in two respects: He identified Stephane, and he created a system, a department and processes that transcend any one person. It didn't disintegrate when Brendan left, which is a testament to what he put in place, which is what he had always envisioned."

Shanahan, now president of Maple Leaf Sports and Entertainment, was a tough loss for Bettman.

"He went to the Leafs with my blessing, because he's an extraordinary person and a good friend. I would have preferred he didn't go -- because I liked having him here and I thought he was a great asset," Bettman said. "But I also respected what a great opportunity this was for him and for the Leafs."

Shanahan's exit prompted us to wonder about Bettman's own future. He's been at the helm of the NHL since February 1993. He turns 62 on June 2. There have been rumors that he might step down after the league's centennial season in 2017, but he gave no indication either way Friday.

"I love what I do," Bettman said. "I still think [of] myself as a relatively young man. I have as much energy and as much passion as I've ever had. I suppose at some point, I don't know when that is, either a function of age or whatever, the owners and I will figure out what's appropriate. But it's not anything any of us are focused on right now. My contract still has a few more years to run. I can't even tell you what it runs to, because I don't keep track of it."

Don't believe that for a second. The commissioner keeps track of every single thing that goes on in his league.

Rarely though in his long term at the head of this league has he been able to look out his office windows with such tranquility.

It may not last, but right now, he can do just that.