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Wednesday, November 8, 2000
Bettman: Solidify struggling franchises

OK, now there are 30 teams in the NHL, 15 in each conference. The league has nearly doubled its presence in major U.S. markets over the last decade. There's a national television contract in the United States, too.

So, what's next on the agenda for NHL commissioner and chief politician Gary Bettman, the point man on all the aforementioned growth?

Since becoming commissioner, Bettman has been center stage during the NHL's period of recent growth.

"What we're going to do is continue to solidify and strengthen and grow what we have," said Bettman when he sat down with this offseason. "I like our footprint. All of our expansion teams, particularly the two new ones started this year, are doing great."

Hockey in Columbus, Ohio and Minnesota looks like a huge success, at least off the ice. But part of that "footprint" also includes ...

  • The Carolina Hurricanes, a franchise still struggling with attendance since its move from Hartford, Conn. to North Carolina.

  • The Canadian teams, a few of which have resorted to near-threatening, season-ticket drives -- as well as attempts to get financial help from the Canadian government.

  • Phoenix still hasn't changed ownership hands, and who knows when their new arena will be built.

  • The game's most storied franchise, the Montreal Canadiens, is being sold and has the pressure of tradition and filling a 20,000-plus seat arena.

    Bettman waiting for next Great One?
    For the last few generations at least, the NHL has been led -- even defined -- by the greatness of its most visible star. Bobby Orr and Wayne Gretzky transcended the sport, bringing it popularity previously unseen in the game.

    Gretzky has been gone for two years, and he has been replaced at the game's apex by players like Jaromir Jagr and Pavel Bure. Neither command the transcendent attention Gretzky did, but that's no surprise, nor is it disappointing because of that lack of surprise.

    But Gretzky and Orr were born and raised on this continent. Bure and Jagr were not.

    Clearly, hockey has integrated its international talent as well, or better than, any other major professional sport. But, would Jagr and Bure command more star presence if they were Canadian or American?

    Commissioner Gary Bettman, for one, says that's nonsense.

    "What fans of sports like is excellence. I think we have preeminent players," Bettman said. "I think people focus on excellence no matter who they are. If you look at it, Muhammad Ali was a world-wide icon. The fact he was popular around the world had nothing to do with the fact he was an American. It is a player whose performance will earn the accolades, interest, respect and adulation, not where they're from."

    Regardless of the nationality debate, few would argue that as great as they are, Bure and Jagr do not capture the general sports fans' imagination -- and are not household names. Bettman, perhaps more than anyone, would like to see the next transcendent hockey player come along soon. Is he waiting?


    "It always happens," he said. "That's the great thing about all sports. One generation retires and another comes up. At ice rinks all over the world, kids get up with their parents to skate. There will never be another Wayne Gretzky. There's never a 'next one.' But each generation brings with it a new standard of excellence."

    -- Brian A. Shactman

    Obviously, there are many positives, too, including the television ratings during the Stanley Cup finals and the stability the ABC/ESPN contract brings. But with all the problem areas, does it beg the question that even with the nice symmetry of 30 teams, would it be a good idea to fold a few weaklings or move them to potentially strong markets like Paul Allen's Portland, Ore.?

    Would Bettman fold or move a franchise to "solidify and strengthen" the league?

    "The answer is there's no reason for us to even think about folding someone," admonished Bettman. "Any suggestion to the contrary has no foundation. And movement is something we try to resist. My hope is that we don't have to move anyone because we don't like franchise relocation, and we try to avoid it."

    Bettman, who is the league's first official commissioner in league history and has overseen the rapid expansion in his tenure since taking over in the early 1993, gets a little fired up when the issue of Canada comes up. According to Bettman -- and against a lot of popular opinion about his M.O. -- the fate of hockey in Canada is every bit as important as the game's fate in the more-lucrative U.S. markets.

    "The people who understand what we're doing (in Canada) have been very supportive of our efforts," he said. "Those that would prefer to take a run at us, do it. But at the end of the day, we've had a pretty darn good track record of strengthening the Canadian franchises after Quebec and Winnipeg left. I would have preferred to not have had to relocate those franchises, but based on the circumstances at the time, we had no choice.

    "With the passage of some time, our options got a little bit better. We have the Canadian assistance plan, which the board enacted five years ago. Edmonton is in better shape than it was. Ottawa is in better shape than it was. Calgary is in better shape than it was."

    The Canadian assistance program aids the financially disadvantaged Canadian teams -- due to the weaker Canadian dollar and a higher tax burden. For instance, the Calgary Flames currently reap about $3 million annually from the NHL aid plan.

    But last season, in response to Canada working on its own assistance package for its NHL teams, the league was about to give a five-year extension on the assistance plan. However, when federal aid fell through because of overwhelming public sentiment against it, the league went back to re-evaluating the plan on a year-to-year basis. So, teams like the Flames and Senators were forced to undertake ticket-drive campaigns to ensure qualification for the NHL aid -- and to justify keeping the teams in their respective cities.

    "The teams, particularly those in small markets -- even more particularly those in Canadian small markets -- need the support of their community," said Bettman regarding the ticket drives that some felt resembled threats to fans. "A team that had a 17,000 season-ticket base dwindle to 9,000, is in trouble. That's not a threat. That's a reality. And the fact that, every now and then, sometimes you need a wake-up call to the community to say 'We need your help,' that's not a threat. That's because the alternative is to let the franchise shrivel and die.

    "And if you look at the campaign that was (just) undertaken in Calgary, they've rejuvenated the market in support of the Flames. They've taken the season-ticket base back over 14,000 -- which is healthy. But a team in a small market needs that kind of support. So, it gets characterized in the media as a threat, but it's really not. It's saying, 'We need your help.'"

    It will be a major challenge, keeping a few of the Canadian franchises viable -- Toronto is the strongest by far -- so keep an eye on how things go if/when a team like Calgary or Vancouver struggles in the standings ... and in the stands.

    Brian A. Shactman is the NHL Editor for
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