“Last year, everybody focused on the relaunch: How would we come back?” Bettman said during the opener between the Stanley Cup champion Carolina Hurricanes and the Buffalo Sabres. “We’re now finally in position where we don’t have to be looking back at the work stoppage or anything having to do with it.
“We’ve got a healthy game. We’ve got teams whose economics are now sound. We’ve got the best competitive balance we’ve had. The game on the ice is terrific. So now we can be forward looking and that’s a great opportunity for us. We haven’t been in that position for a very long time.”
Bettman was back in the RBC Center for the second time in less than four months. He was there for the Hurricanes’ last game, appearing on the ice afterward to hand captain Rod Brind’Amour the Cup after Carolina beat Edmonton 3-1 in Game 7 of the finals on June 19.
He spoke with reporters after the first period Wednesday, touting the league’s growth since resolving a labour dispute between the NHL and the players’ association that wiped out the entire 2004-05 season. The league re-emerged last year with rule changes that sought to eliminate the defensive clutching and grabbing that bogged down pre-lockout scoring.
The league also implemented a salary cap, which it increased to US$44 million – $5 million more per team over last season – after revenues were higher than expected.
The Hurricanes and Sabres were among the top beneficiaries of the changes. Carolina had missed the playoffs for two straight seasons before winning the Cup, while Buffalo had missed the playoffs for three seasons before losing to Carolina in Game 7 of the Eastern Conference finals.
Bettman said the league’s first focus after the lockout was bringing fans back to the game. Now it includes growing the game by improving television ratings, he said.
“We kind of think that we’ve gotten to a good position – the best we’ve been in – and we can improve from here,” Bettman said. “These things don’t change overnight, but we do like the direction that we’re heading.”