League set record attendance for October

WASHINGTON -- The National Hockey League enjoyed record October attendances with an average 16,820 fans per game as crowds rose more than 4 percent from the 2003-04 season, commissioner Gary Bettman said on Friday.

While the league suffered a season-long work stoppage a year ago, 23 of the league's 30 clubs have matched or are ahead of their 2003-04 attendances, Bettman said.

"The cynics were predicting that by taking a year off, which obviously is something nobody wanted to do, we would have destroyed our following and our fans would never come back," Bettman told Reuters in an interview on Friday.

"But hockey fans tend to be the most passionate, most connected, most knowledgeable about the sport, and our fans were telling us they wanted it fixed and they were being supportive of us during the entire process. Not only were the prognosticators wrong that we were going to be damaged, we've actually come back even stronger, which is
a testament to the game and a testament to our fans," he said.

Last month's attendance eclipsed the previous record of 16,397 set during October in the 1999-2000 campaign.

"Like all fans, we're thrilled that we're back and that the game is doing as well on the ice in terms of entertainment, excitement, speed and skill," Bettman said. "And that our fans
have been receptive."

Following last year's labor strife, the league slashed payrolls, implemented a new revenue-sharing system and tinkered with the game's rules to allow more scoring.

An average of 6.4 goals are now being scored per game, up from five during the last NHL season.

Some teams' attendances have skyrocketed, like the Tampa Bay Lightning, who are enjoying a 28 percent increase over the 2003-04 season to an average of 20,615.

"We don't take anything for granted," Bettman said. "Nobody's patting themselves on the back. What it's doing is vindicating our belief in the strength of our game and the
passion and loyalty of our great fans."

Other clubs, however, have stumbled at the gate. The Washington Capitals are averaging 12,313, down 11 percent.

"I think as we start to come out of the lockout and fans start to fall back in love with the new players, we'll capture that back," Capitals owner Ted Leonsis told Reuters. "My hope is within a few years we'll be right back to where we were.

"The league is in such better shape economically; it really put us in great shape too. Someone was joking last night when they said to me, 'Gee, you got beat pretty bad last night, 8-1, in Philadelphia.' I told them, 'Last year with a $50 million team, we got beat 8-2.' So our payroll is down way more than our ticket sales are. And now with revenue sharing, this is our best year ever financially," Leonsis said.

Bettman believes the new rules are only partially responsible for the overall attendance spike.

"It's the rule changes coupled with the new economic system which has given us better competitive balance," he said. "As you saw over the summer, there was a redistribution of talent so that now every team feels on any given night it has a chance.

"We are only about 20 percent through the season but we like what we're seeing," he said.