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Saturday, January 29, 2011
Bettman on head shots, owners, more

By Scott Burnside and Pierre LeBrun
ESPN.com

RALEIGH, N.C. -- During his state of the game news conference before Saturday night's SuperSkills competition, NHL commissioner Gary Bettman acknowledged concussions are up this season and most of the increase has been in the area of accidental collisions, not reckless plays.

Bettman would not give numbers but did say the number of concussions due to blindside hits has declined since Rule 48 was introduced late last season to penalize hits against vulnerable players.

But perhaps more problematic is the rise in the number of concussions sustained when players fall into opponents or even teammates or hit their heads on the ice after a fall or check. Those concussions are up more than twofold over a year ago, and the man-games lost to those injuries are up three times over last season, Bettman said.

The NHL general managers will continue to debate the issue at their meetings in Florida in March, and several sources told ESPN.com Saturday the board of governors have asked GMs to discuss the possibility of moving to zero tolerance on blows to the head. Such blanket rules exist in Canadian junior hockey, the International Ice Hockey Federation and U.S. college hockey.

Gary Bettman
NHL commissioner Gary Bettman said Saturday the league will continue to look at ways to protect its players from concussions.

But Bettman warned that the GMs will take great care to ensure that whatever measures need to be taken are the right ones.

"Changing a rule which doesn't address what's actually causing the concussions may not be the right thing to do. Changing equipment may not necessarily be the right thing to do," Bettman said. "It's easy to say the league needs to do X, Y and Z on concussions. It's not that simple. We spend a lot of effort on this subject. We know it's important."

If part of the head-shot issue is about changing attitudes as much as equipment or board strength, then maybe there is hope. Vancouver GM Mike Gillis described watching a video during Saturday's board of governors meeting showing his star forward, Henrik Sedin, lose control of the puck coming across the middle of the ice in a recent game against Philadelphia.

"And rather than hitting [Sedin] in a vulnerable position, [Mike] Richards approached him much more cautiously and went for the puck. He tried to interrupt him that way," Gillis said. "So there is some evidence of players beginning to react in respect to each other."

Maybe.

Although there has been much debate in recent months about the debate -- and perhaps even more since the game's best player, Sidney Crosby, went down with a concussion after the Winter Classic -- Bettman pointed out the NHL remains the trendsetter when it comes to dealing with concussions in North America pro sports.

"In 1997, we were the first professional sports league to start a working group for the study of concussions," Bettman said. "We were the first sport to mandate neuropsychological baseline testing. We have also mandated changes to the rules. We have mandated changes to equipment. We have mandated changes to the playing environment. All designed to increase player safety."

Other matters addressed by Bettman on Saturday:

• Bettman said the sale of the Phoenix Coyotes remains on track despite reports to the contrary.

Sources also told ESPN.com's Scott Burnside the sale to Matthew Hulsizer should be completed by mid-February. Having said that, Bettman did add that time was of the essence in Phoenix.

We followed up those comments by asking the commissioner what exactly is the drop-dead date for the Coyotes to finally get the sale wrapped up before the league starts to look elsewhere, a question we prefaced by saying tortured Winnipegers deserved to know.

"I know it would satisfy everybody's sense of finality to announce a drop-dead date," Bettman said. "As long as the process is holding together in a timeframe that we can deal with a schedule and the like, we're going to hang in there. If it becomes clear that the train is off the rails or that the train isn't getting to the station any time soon, then we'll have to re-evaluate our position. But we're not going to, by a matter of a day or two, just simply make an artificial date. ...

"This is not something that is of infinite duration. I have tried to be as careful as I could be not to raise expectations in Winnipeg. Everybody knows my view on that. If we have to move a club, it would be good to go back to a place that we were once in that has a different situation, vis a vis building and ownership and the like. But it's one of the reasons we get concerned. We think it's unfair when baseless stories come out suggesting things that aren't true to get people in Winnipeg all excited. If there's something to announce, I promise we'll announce it."

To our knowledge, those comments are the most definitive Bettman has been in labeling Winnipeg a bona fide NHL market in waiting. Interesting.

A reporter from Quebec then asked the obvious next question: What about Quebec City should it finally build a rink?

"I don't want anybody getting excited," said Bettman. "The fact of the matter is, over the last couple of years, there have been lots of stories suggesting a building in Quebec City is a done deal, that the money has been raised. Nobody has told me that, and in the conversations that I've had with a variety of people, including the mayor and the premier, we have said, 'We're not planning on expanding, we're not planning on relocation, so we cannot promise you a franchise.'

"If there's a new building separate and independent from us for whatever reason and the opportunity presents itself with respect to a franchise, it's no different than what I said about Winnipeg. But we don't want people building a building on our account expecting that there is going to be a franchise, because we're not in a position to promise one right now."

On other franchise matters, Bettman confirmed the board of governors executive committee interviewed prospective Buffalo Sabres owner Terry Pegula on Saturday morning. Bettman stopped short, however, of confirming ESPN.com's report that the Sabres are expected to announce a purchase agreement with Pegula by the end of the week. Sources have told ESPN.com the purchase price will be $189 million ($175 million in cash, $14 million in assumed liabilities). The deal won't officially close for another month once the purchase agreement is signed and announced.

"I know Terry Pegula. I've spent a fair amount of time with him. I like him," Bettman said. "I believe he's somebody who has the wherewithal to own a franchise. He's obviously been a hockey fan for a long time. I think he was a Sabres season-ticket holder for 18 years. He's made a substantial contribution in furtherance of collegiate ice hockey in Penn State.

"And the status of the transaction, I'm not going to speculate as to whether or not this is the week or there's ever going to be a week that would be for Mr. Pegula and the Sabres and current ownership to announce, if and when they're ready."

• Bettman was asked about Evgeni Nabokov's suspension and the possibility the New York Islanders could use the Alexei Yashin precedent in Ottawa to "toll" his contract (in other words, make Nabokov play out his one-year, $570,000 next season if he chooses to try to play in the NHL).

"The player signed his contract knowing that he had to clear the waiver procedure," said Bettman. "Those are the rules. Everybody knew them going in. And I don't want to make this any more complicated or any worse, but the Yashin situation obviously will be a precedent when a player, any player, isn't rendering the services called for under his contract. I assume the team will take the position that the contract tolls."

• The NHL is considering having the Washington Capitals play a game in St. Petersburg, Russia, as part of its Premiere Games series in the fall. We asked Bettman whether the recent suicide bombing in Moscow gave the league some pause on that front.

"World-wide terrorism is something that's on our mind on a regular basis," said Bettman. "Building security, even in North America, is extremely important to us; [the] safety of our players and our fans is of paramount importance, and in making any decision as to where we play games, particularly outside of North America. It's something we have to take into account. It's obviously something that people have been speculating needs to be taken into account with respect to the [2014] Sochi Games for the Olympics."

• The Atlanta Thrashers are looking for new ownership amid rumors of a possible move.

"The last few years have been taxing on ownership from a financial standpoint with respect to both the basketball team and the hockey team and the arena," said Bettman. "And if people are looking to restructure the economics and bring in more capital, it might not be crazy for them to be seeking to add to the wherewithal to deal with those issues."

Scott Burnside and Pierre LeBrun cover the NHL for ESPN.com.