SBD/October 6, 2011/NHL Season Preview

Bettman Faces Several Important Off-Ice Issues As NHL Season Begins

Bettman says league is coming off what might have been its best season
The NHL season is set to open tonight, and "this might be the year that defines" Gary Bettman's long tenure as NHL commissioner, according to Scott Burnside of ESPN.com. There are "a myriad of off-ice issues" that will play out during the '11-12 season. Ownership issues "will continue to dog the NHL on a number of fronts, most notably in Phoenix, where the league continues to operate" the Coyotes. As much as the "return of hockey to Winnipeg this fall is seen as a victory for Canada, the reality is the loss of a major media market like Atlanta is a blow to Bettman's plan for a pan-American NHL footprint." The loss of "another major market like Phoenix to another smaller Canadian market like Quebec City would be a hard sell for the other owners." This season "also will bring with it the end of the current collective bargaining agreement and the specter of another protracted work stoppage." One reason "to suggest the game will not be interrupted is that it continues to arc upward in terms of revenues, profile and general positive reviews around North America, something that's been the case since the end of the lockout" in '04-05. Bettman said, "Looking at the game and the business end of that game, we're coming off what might have been the best season ever. I think we can take what we had last year and feel very good about what we have this year." With the addition of a "new, long-term television deal with NBC and the network's plans to revamp its cable arm, Versus, the cable carrier of NHL games, the league has achieved a kind of security in terms of television exposure that likewise seemed inconceivable after the lockout when broadcasters showed little interest in committing to the league." The NHL also "remains on the cutting edge of technology when it comes to attracting fans and fans in the most desirable demographics." Bettman said, "All of those things I think bode well for the future of the game" (ESPN.com, 10/4). In Pittsburgh, Josh Yohe noted the NHL "faces a potentially marvelous opportunity for growth this season." It "appears the NBA will endure a work stoppage," and the spotlight "could belong to the NHL." Yohe: "A healthy [Sidney] Crosby could do wonders. So, too, could the league's ability to expose its players, most of whom are likeable. The negative incidents need to evaporate, now more than ever" (PITTSBURGH TRIBUNE-REVIEW, 10/2).

CHALLENGES AHEAD: In N.Y., Jeff Klein writes, "It was another in a succession of strong years for the NHL: exciting play, soaring television ratings, record revenue and the fourth straight Stanley Cup finals between traditional hockey cities. But even as the Boston Bruins were raising the silver chalice on June 15, the riot was on outside in the streets of Vancouver." Thus began "perhaps the NHL’s worst off-season." A league "reeling from the accidental death of Derek Boogaard from a drug and alcohol overdose was further saddened by the apparent suicide of two other enforcers and the deaths of several former players in the Lokomotiv plane crash near Yaroslavl, Russia." In the NHL, "enormous success and optimism coexist with dark clouds and trepidation." The "crackdown on concussion-causing boarding and checks to the head is burnishing the league’s reputation, but will that be offset by what could emerge about the widespread use of painkillers, or a civil trial involving a 2004 attack by Todd Bertuzzi that ended Steve Moore’s career?" Klein: "Will the euphoria of the Winnipeg Jets’ rebirth be dampened by continued misery in Phoenix? Will financial growth and fan popularity be tempered by February’s talks on the expiring collective bargaining agreement?" (N.Y. TIMES, 10/6). 

LABOR PAINS: The GLOBE & MAIL's David Shoalts wrote the "most important fight" in the upcoming CBA negotiations, "at least in the early going, is not between the players and owners but between the have and have-not owners." The small market owners are "looking for big concessions from the players." League sources said that the small-revenue teams are "marshalling their forces, vowing not to be pushed into an agreement they don't want by their richer colleagues" (GLOBE & MAIL, 10/3). In Toronto, Damien Cox writes, "One suspects sadly that the spectre of labour trouble will slowly contaminate the season" (TORONTO STAR, 10/6). The GLOBE & MAIL's Jeff Blair wrote under the header, "Donald Fehr Brings Order To NHLPA." Blair noted the NHL has "a lot riding on Fehr." An "engaged and informed players' association is a must at a time of pressing big-picture and economic issues." Blackhawks C Jonathan Toews has said the NHLPA is "running almost like a company now," while Lightning RW Martin St. Louis spoke of Fehr having a "calming and soothing effect" (GLOBE & MAIL, 10/5). In N.Y., Larry Brooks wrote eliminating the salary floor "should be Priority 1" for Fehr. The floor is "supposed to guarantee the holy grail of competitive balance, but it doesn't." Brooks: "Forcing franchises that can't afford it to commit a certain portion of their assets to payroll means they have less to invest in scouting and player development, areas fundamental to long-term success. ... If Priority 1 is eliminating the floor, Priority 1A is holding the line on the cap applying to NHL rosters only" (N.Y. POST, 10/2).

LET'S MAKE A DEAL: In Boston, Kevin Paul Dupont wrote the NHLPA office "sure is quiet." NHL Senior VP/Player Safety & Hockey Operations Brendan Shanahan is "doing more for the game as league disciplinarian/safety engineer than anyone has done for it since the invention of the Zamboni, helmets, and forward pass." Dupont: "And we hear nary a peep from Donald Fehr's corner office up there in Toronto. I doubt it, but could it possibly mean that Fehr and NHL commissioner Gary Bettman are quietly figuring out how to hit the 'refresh' button on the current CBA? A third lockout would not be a charm" (BOSTON GLOBE, 10/2).
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