DETROIT – Gary Bettman doesn’t have to look very far to find some evidence that the Phoenix Coyotes situation can be turned around.
The NHL commissioner noted during his annual address before the Stanley Cup final that both the Detroit Red Wings and Pittsburgh Penguins were once struggling franchises.
The Penguins even filed for bankruptcy protection a decade ago in a situation that looked bleaker to him than what is currently playing out in Phoenix.
“Truth be told, it’s probably fair to say that the Pittsburgh Penguins – during their bankruptcy period – were in worse shape,” Bettman said Saturday before Game 1 of the Stanley Cup finals. “Because they didn’t even have at the time the prospect of a new building. And look at where they are today. …
“We didn’t walk out on Pittsburgh, we fought to fix their problems. We’re fighting for Phoenix because of our covenant with the team and the fans there.”
Not surprisingly, the Coyotes situation dominated the discussion during his press conference.
The commissioner went to great lengths to point out that he had no personal problem with Jim Balsillie, who is hoping to buy the NHL team and move it to Hamilton. Instead, Bettman said his main issue with the situation is that the team should only be allowed to relocate under the process laid out in league bylaws.
“From my standpoint, it’s not personal,” said Bettman. “It’s about league rules and it’s about doing the right thing in terms of the stability of this game and this league.”
The commissioner pronounced it a “strong, solid season in all metrics that we measure.”
Despite the current economic downturn, Bettman said the NHL experienced four per cent real revenue growth over the last year. He indicated that next season’s salary cap will end up somewhere between US$54 million and its current spot at $56.7 million.
Bettman also made some of his strongest comments yet on the need for better drug testing. While saying he doesn’t believe there’s a problem with performance-enhancing drugs in the NHL, he indicated that he would like to see more substances included on the banned list, along with year-round testing.
“I acknowledge that our testing program could be more comprehensive and it is time, we believe, that the players’ association step up and agree to make the changes that the World Anti-Doping Agency has recommended,” said Bettman.
“The players’ association has not been ready to embrace it, but (executive director) Paul Kelly has indicated that he supports it and I take him at his word.
“He believes he needs some time to persuade him members to go along with it.”
Kelly intends to raise the issue during the players meeting in Las Vegas next month.
“The NHLPA will be discussing drug testing with our membership this summer,” he said in a statement. “The NHL did not want to include playoff testing when the joint program was first collectively bargained back in 2005 as they deemed that the testing would be a distraction, and that is an area the league has now indicated they would like to review with the NHLPA. …
“While we continue to review the program and discuss modifications with our members, we are pleased with how the program has operated to date.”
Among the other topics Bettman touched on during his address:
-Bettman said the league will eventually look at the possibility of a second team in Toronto: “It’s not something that we’ve studied. If we’re going to either relocate a franchise … or we decide to expand, if there’s suitable ownership and a suitable arena situation it’s something we’re going to have to take a look at.”
-The decision to start the Stanley Cup with games on consecutive nights was made a year ago. “We wanted to try something different, we wanted to try and build an intense start to the series,” said Bettman.
-If the league doesn’t finalize a transfer agreement with the IIHF over the next week, it will continue to play without one.
-He isn’t concerned that the KHL’s decision to hold a draft including 17-year-olds will affect the number of players coming to the North America: “This is where the best players want to be.”
-And Bettman reiterated that there will be no decision on the participation of NHL players in the 2014 Olympics in Sochi, Russia, until after the Games in Vancouver next February.
However, he suggested that the time difference would cause a problem for prime-time television in North America.
Ultimately, Bettman saved his strongest words for the situation being played out in a Phoenix courtroom.
He doesn’t believe that majority owner Jerry Moyes should have filed for Chapter 11 bankruptcy protection earlier this month, especially because Jerry Reinsdorf had made an offer to purchase the Coyotes and leave them in the desert.
“The team was never in jeopardy,” said Bettman. “It was literally 20 minutes away from being fixed in a way that we thought was going to work quite well. It’s my view that the Coyotes should not be in bankruptcy.”
The next major hearing in bankruptcy court will be held June 9 – the same day as a potential Game 6 in the Stanley Cup final.
Bettman called judge Redfield Baum’s decision on whether the team can be relocated a “profound issue for all sports leagues” and made it clear that the NHL’s bylaws should be upheld.
“The issue here is league rules and league processes and procedures,” said Bettman. “This is not just an NHL issue. This is not a Canada versus U.S. issue. This is not a Phoenix versus Hamilton issue.
“And this is certainly not a personal issue.”