The NHL already knows it can stage regular season games in Europe. The biggest question now is just how much more successful those games can become.
In a wide-ranging interview with The Canadian Press ahead of the NHL’s 91st season, commissioner Gary Bettman said he hopes the league can continue to expand its presence on the continent.
“Assuming it works the way we anticipate and hope it will, this will be something to build off of,” he said. “Like this year built off of last year.”
Bettman fondly remembers the exuberant, jersey-clad fans that came from all over Europe to watch last season open in London. The NHL hopes to take interest to a new level this year by staging a pair of games in both the Swedish and Czech capitals.
“Now we have an opportunity to go to more well-developed hockey markets where a number of our players actually come from,” said Bettman. “We are getting, from the early indications, a fabulous reception.”
It might be a little like looking into the future.
Even though the commissioner doesn’t possess a crystal ball, he’s not shy about discussing the league’s desire to increase its exposure in Europe. Naturally, it will only take baby steps for now – as seen by the decision to have four games involving four teams this season after sending two teams for two games a year ago.
Roughly 30 per cent of NHLers come from outside North America and the large majority of those players are European.
Swedes that attend games Saturday and Sunday in Stockholm will get to watch one of their own as Daniel Alfredsson and the Ottawa Senators take on the Pittsburgh Penguins. Jaromir Jagr is no longer a member of the New York Rangers but the team will still bring Czechs Petr Prucha and Michal Rozsival to Prague for two games against Tampa Bay.
Of course, the NHL has much more to gain in Europe than just attracting new fans. The games could also help lead to future sponsorship deals, licensing agreements and more lucrative contracts for TV rights.
“Those (things) will continue to grow as we continue to have a presence on the continent,” said Bettman. “Playing regular season games on a regular basis gives us an opportunity to have a presence that our fans can relate to.”
On this side of the pond, the league is coming off a season in which it set an overall attendance record for the third straight year. At the same time, U.S. television ratings during the Stanley Cup final were higher than they’ve been since before the lockout.
The NHL decided to yank its games off ESPN after the work stoppage in favour of NBC and the lesser-known Versus, a station some Americans still have a hard time finding on their dial. It’s a move that many have questioned and Bettman believes receives a “disproportionate” amount of attention.
Even still, there are signs of improvement and the commissioner wouldn’t change a thing.
“ESPN is a very powerful force in the marketplace,” said Bettman. “I think it’s easy if you’re looking to take a shot at us to say, ‘Well, they’re not on ESPN.’
“We chose not to be. The relationship that we have with Versus is quite significant both financially and in terms of the coverage they give us. We have no complaints.”
Another thing he’s not complaining about is a collective bargaining agreement that’s now entering its fourth year.
The NHL lost an entire season before owners and players ended up agreeing on a salary cap system that is tied to league revenues. Both have steadily increased during the three years since. The cap first began at US$39 million – a number that is no longer enough for a team to reach the floor because the current cap is set at $56.7 million.
Overall, the agreement has turned out to be something that both sides can be happy with, according to Bettman.
“I think this CBA has been fair to everyone,” he said. “It has made the industry healthier and it has made the game better.
“I think we give our fans a better product and environment to the game than we did before. I don’t think it’s close. And it’s working the way we anticipated it would.”
Every NHL team must spend a little over $40 million on payroll to reach the cap floor this year. Bettman doesn’t think that amount is too high for any individual team because the poorest squads will receive as much as $13 million per year in revenue sharing.
One of the more interesting trends to emerge over the last couple years is the number of long-term contracts that have been given out.
There are no shortage of extreme examples, from Rick DiPietro’s 15-year deal with the New York Islanders to the 11-year pact Vincent Lecavalier signed over the summer with Tampa. However, the trend runs even deeper than those headline-grabbers with more six-and seven-year contracts being signed than ever before.
If Bettman was a general manager, he’d probably be doing things a bit differently.
“I think that there might be some longer-term contracts because of the more liberalized free agency rules,” said Bettman. “Time will tell if that’s the right strategy. If I were doing it myself for a club, I would tend to go towards shorter-term contracts.
“As we say, it will probably come down to the individual cases as to whether or not it was a good strategy. If you signed the right player up long term, it will have been a great strategy. And if it turns out you invested not wisely, then it will be a bad strategy.”
In a broader business sense, it’s been a bad year for most investors because of struggles on Wall Street and other stock markets around the world.
The NHL has yet to really feel the pinch, in part because many of the league’s business deals for the coming season have already been completed. However, that’s no guarantee that tough times won’t lie ahead.
“Watching what’s been going on the last week, obviously we’re aware of it,” said Bettman. “And certainly I’m mindful of the fact that if there is a continuing economic upheaval, I don’t think anybody will be immune from it.
“But its exact impact is unpredictable and not something we’re feeling yet.”
On a personal level, the commissioner is feeling excited with a new season only days away.
Bettman has been on the job for over 15 years now and says he feels a “void” the day after presenting the Cup each spring because it means there won’t be any hockey to watch for a couple months.
Finally, the regular season games are about to resume.
“I love this game and I love what I’m doing,” said Bettman. “And I consider it a privilege to be able to get up every day and be a part of this.”