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Winnipeg, Quebec still in line for franchises as another NHL season begins

As another NHL season gets underway with six Canadian teams, there is at least some reason for guarded optimism in other parts of the country.

In recent months, NHL commissioner Gary Bettman has spoken openly about his desire to see franchises return to places where they've been lost—hello Winnipeg and Quebec City—provided the right circumstances present themselves.

One of those scenarios could play out over the coming season if a buyer for the Phoenix Coyotes doesn't emerge.

The league can begin officially looking at relocation options if the team isn't sold by Dec. 31, a date that looms pretty large given that the Coyotes have been on the market for more than a year. In an interview prior to the start of the NHL's 93rd season, Bettman reported no progress on a sale in Phoenix.

"The process is ongoing," he said. "No new headlines."

One can only imagine the headlines if the NHL decides it must move the Coyotes. Bettman has remained steadfast in his desire to keep all franchises in their current location, but the league's 29 other teams surely won't want to still be paying the bills in Phoenix at this time next year.

The commissioner acknowledged that there are a number of cities with an interest in having an NHL team and hinted that Winnipeg is ahead of Quebec in the queue.

"Some interest is more realistic than others," said Bettman. "If there's interest in a place that doesn't have an arena, it's not interest at this point that we need to focus on, without mentioning any names. The issue only becomes ripe if we're either moving a franchise—which we're not currently planning on doing—or we decide to expand—which we're not currently planning on doing.

"When there is a franchise by either mode that is available, then we're in a different place."

Depending on how things play out in Phoenix, the league might find itself in that place sooner than later.

For a fourth straight year, the NHL is opening the regular season in Europe. Six teams will play games in three different cities, starting Thursday with Minnesota taking on Carolina in Helsinki.

More than half of the league has participated in the overseas experiment—16 of 30 teams, including this year's group—although Toronto, Montreal, Vancouver, Edmonton, Calgary and the New York Rangers are among those yet to go.

That could change moving forward.

"We're still at the stage where we take volunteers," said Bettman. "And so we try to give the fans in the various cities attractive matchups, interesting matchups and over time our hope and expectation is that everybody will want to go and will get to go."

The league seems committed to growing its brand across the pond. As Bettman notes, the games themselves are expensive to put on—when you factor in travel costs and the price of buying out a team's home gate—and don't generate much direct revenue.

In many ways, the NHL is still in a bit of a trial and error phase with its European experiment.

"You build over time and not every year you're going to get it right," said Bettman. "Either in terms of the matchups, the locations, the number of games. We're still in the infancy of this undertaking, but we know that it's good in terms of responding to the interest in the game.

"You know, 28 per cent of our players come from outside of North America and hockey fans in those countries like to see how their players are doing in our league."

The NHL is coming off an interesting summer, where the biggest story was arguably the salary cap. Many free agents signed for less money than they would have received in years past while cap issues forced some teams into interesting moves—like the New York Rangers sending Wade Redden and his annual US$6.5-million salary to the American Hockey League.

Bettman thinks that situation could have been avoided if the NHL Players' Association allowed money paid to certain players in the AHL to be counted against the cap.

"Redden is not the first player to be in this situation," said Bettman. "This comes about because the union in bargaining five years ago wanted to not have counted against the cap or against the percentage that the players get, money being paid to players in the minor leagues.

"If the money stayed up here and still counted, then a player in the Redden situation probably would have been bought out and re-signed by an NHL club at a lesser amount. But that's not the way the system was designed and this was an issue that was important to the players."

The current CBA expires in 2012—leaving plenty of time to get to work on a new agreement, according to Bettman.

He hopes to sit down at the bargaining table once Donald Fehr officially takes over as the NHLPA's executive director. Fehr's appointment is expected to happen within a month or so.

"Obviously, we would like to (start negotiating) sooner and quieter if possible," said Bettman. "But since we're not yet in a position to have a union leader to engage with, it's a little premature to be speculating on this stuff."

He and Fehr have known each other for years, but haven't spent much time together since the former head of the baseball players' union moved to the NHLPA.

"We have had conversations periodically," said Bettman. "But in the final analysis, it's not for me to get engaged with him until he's formally appointed."

Among the other issues Bettman touched on during a wide-ranging interview:

—On if the unrest at the NHLPA has hurt the league: "I don't think it would be fair to suggest that. I think the better response is that I think having a strong union that can work together with us to grow the game would be a real plus."

—On reports the league is interested in hiring retired defenceman Rob Blake: "I have a great deal of respect and regard for Rob. He's had a spectacular career. He's obviously extraordinarily knowledgeable about the game. I think that he has a future in the game off the ice probably as bright as his career was on the ice."



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