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NHL state of the union: Bettman slow-plays Seattle expansion, Daly talks concussions

The NHL addressed Seattle expansion, concussions and CTE, the wild success of the Vegas Golden Knights & much more during its annual press conference prior to the start of the Stanley Cup final.

LAS VEGAS – It’s remarkable, really, how the NHL continues to fall into a mother lode of success. It cancels a season completely and comes back stronger than ever. It completely messes up the John Scott All-Star Game berth, only to see Scott emerge as the hero and feel-good story worthy of a movie. And it becomes the first league to stake a claim to Las Vegas and watches that team become one of the greatest stories in the history of sports en route to getting to the Stanley Cup final in its first year of existence.

You’d think with that kind of momentum behind it, the league would be eager to become the Original 32 as soon as possible. There had been reports that expansion to Seattle is on the docket for the Board of Governors meeting on June 20 and the red stamp would be ready to be used, but NHL commissioner Gary Bettman said in his annual state-of-the-union address that there’s no way Seattle will be a member that quickly. There will not be a vote at that meeting, Bettman stressed, saying it might be handled at the September or December meetings. But there were no promises or timetables.

There was, however, a commitment that once Seattle does become a league member – and barring catastrophic event that will happen – it will be granted the same expansion draft rules that made the Vegas Golden Knights a league powerhouse in Year 1. Of course, GMs will negotiate those rules a lot more competently this time around so it would be wise not to start planning any parade routes, but it would hardly be fair to charge Seattle more – a $650-million expansion fee as opposed to the $500 million that Vegas paid – and not give it the same opportunity to be good.

“The fact that (the Knights) are in the Stanley Cup final was hard even to imagine at the start of the year,” said deputy commissioner Bill Daly. “The rules were well-thought through and you never can please everybody. There were concerns, but we ultimately decided they were the right mix. We feel like the next expansion team should have the benefit of the exact same rules. I wouldn’t say anybody expected the expansion draft rules would have created a Stanley Cup finalist.”

In general, the league’s pre-Cup press conference was a feel-good day for the NHL. Both Bettman and Daly touched on a number of issues including:

— Daly reacted to an excellent report by Rick Westhead of TSN which said that Boston Bruins owner and chairman of the board of governors, Jeremy Jacobs, as part of the discovery process in the concussion lawsuit by former players, testified three years ago that he had never heard of chronic traumatic encephalopathy (CTE) and that, to his knowledge, it had never been discussed at an NHL board of governors meeting. At the time, four former players had posthumously been diagnosed with CTE and the NFL had paid $765 million to settle a concussion lawsuit.

Daly said he did not see the report, but seemed to contradict Jacobs’ testimony. “I can’t comment on what Jeremy testified other than to say that we’ve had numerous reports to the board of governors over time on player safety issues, including concussions and CTE,” Daly said. “That’s all I can say.”

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— Aided by the revenue-rich Golden Knights, things are looking very rosy for the NHL. After the salary cap stayed relatively flat at $75 million this season, Daly projected that it could rise to as high as $80 million next season based solely on increased revenues. If the NHL Players’ Association decided to trigger an inflator, the cap could possibly go as high as $82 million. It’s hard to fathom the NHLPA would do that if the cap went up significantly organically, but nothing is out of the question. The NHLPA has the right to trigger a five-percent inflator, but doing so would have an effect on the universally despised escrow payments. As far as the NHLPA is concerned, there’s always a push and pull between players who are under contract and those who are not. Those under contract prefer to keep the cap lower to minimize escrow payments, while those looking for contracts want teams to have as much cap space as possible. NHLPA executive director Donald Fehr suggested the union could have a decision in the next 10 days to two weeks.

— As far as labor relations are concerned, both Daly and Bettman said the league is eager to start negotiations immediately to secure labor peace and avoid a lockout in 2020. “I think there’s certainly a shared desire to try to at least have those discussions to see if we can get there,” Daly said. “From our perspective, we’re prepared to have those discussions at any point in time. My expectation is the (the NHLPA) is interested in talking sooner rather than later.” Fehr, who was also in attendance, said the NHLPA is open to discussions.

But the problem as one NHLPA source pointed out, is that unless both sides come into negotiations with constructive ideas and a willingness to compromise, negotiating early can actually harm the process and bog it down more than help it. In other words, there’s nothing like the pressure of a deadline to get people seriously negotiating. “The last time around, we would have been better off starting 48 hours before the lockout started,” the source said. “All we did was waste time up until that juncture.”

— In light of Calgary city council voting to sit down again to negotiate with the Calgary Flames on a new building, Daly did not tip his hand as to how things will turn out. Talks have been unproductive to this point and have created more hard feelings between the Flames and the city. “All indications right now is that it’s a dead end,” Daly said. “But dead ends tend to become non-dead ends at some point in time. I would hope at some point we will transition to a point where there’s a possibility of a new arena because I think the franchise needs a new arena.”