CHICAGO – NHL Commissioner Gary Bettman is a year removed from cancelling preseason games in the early stages of the league’s lockout of its players.
Now there are rising television ratings, along with participation in another Winter Olympics and settled ownership in Phoenix and New Jersey.
So where does the NHL go from here?
“We just want more of the same,” Bettman said Thursday at a promotion for the March 1 outdoor game between the Chicago Blackhawks and Pittsburgh Penguins at Soldier Field. “We want to continue to build off the foundation we have. The game on the ice is as strong as it’s ever been. And we’re looking to continue to find ways to connect with our fans that will energize our fan base and grow it.”
The league expanded the outdoor schedule from one game, the New Year’s Day Winter Classic, to six this season, including two games at Yankee Stadium and one at Dodger Stadium. Bettman considers the big-event strategy important in generating interest in the NHL.
“This game, all the outdoor games, are one element of it,” Bettman said. “We have the Olympics and we have what we think will be an exciting, competitive season. We’re going to continue to grow. Our fan engagement, not just TV ratings, but through social media and NHL.com, is growing.”
Russia’s recent passage of an anti-gay law has caused concern among some connected with the Sochi Winter Olympics. Bettman said this week that NHL players will participate despite the law banning what Russia calls propaganda of nontraditional sexual relations.
“That’s not something we think is appropriate, to say the least,” Bettman said. “But in the final analysis, and I believe our players feel the same way, they’re going to go, to compete hard for their countries, because that’s important to them.
“I’m not sure it’s easy for sports to ever get involved with politics, but we have a responsibility to make clear that that’s not representative of what we believe is the right thing.”
The NHL partnered with You Can Play, a group started in April by Philadelphia scout Patrick Burke, whose late brother Brendan was gay.
“When it comes to diversity and inclusiveness, I think our record has been very clear,” Bettman said.
While NHL players will travel to Sochi, he doesn’t foresee expansion to Europe, something that’s been occasionally considered for more than 30 years.
“It’s really hard to do, some of it logistics,” Bettman said. “We want to be good citizens in the institutional hockey world, but there is a growing interest throughout the world. That’s something we’re going to continue to try to satisfy.”
Some European-born NHL players have moved back to the continent, especially to the Russia-based Kontinental Hockey League. Ilya Kovalchuk, with New Jersey last season, returned to his homeland by signing with SKA St. Petersburg this summer.
The outdoor game in Chicago is the only one scheduled after the Olympics. Soldier Field, which holds 61,500 for football games, will have a rink placed in the middle of the field. In February, about 52,000 fans attended a college hockey doubleheader co-hosted by Wisconsin and Notre Dame.
The last Winter Classic in Chicago was a sellout between Blackhawks and Detroit at Wrigley Field on Jan. 1, 2009. Blackhawks president John McDonough expects a full house next year at Soldier Field.
“There’s going to be great, great demand for this game,” McDonough said. “You can be sure we’re going to be asking to host another one.”
The Blackhawks are the first team to host two outdoor games.
“This combination catches the imagination and gives our fans a special experience,” Bettman said. “For the teams involved, fans can’t get enough of it. We think we can manage this, put on all six games well.”