- The Washington Times - Friday, November 4, 2005

NHL commissioner Gary Bettman yesterday insisted the league will not contract below its current 30 teams, and said the new economic system passed last summer will allow even the smallest-market teams to compete.

Bettman said the NHL set a record for October attendance this season, and credited new rule changes with spurring interest in the sport, which saw its 2004-2005 season canceled because of an owner-imposed lockout.

“All of these franchises can be not only survivors, but fully competitive teams with this system,” Bettman said during a luncheon at the National Press Club. “Not only have we not been damaged, but we’re back stronger than anyone expected.”

Bettman insisted that the lockout was the right thing to do, and that hockey fans understood the need to make big changes to the league’s economic structure. Before the stoppage, most teams were losing money and struggling to compete against larger market teams that could afford higher payrolls. The new system calls for a cap on salaries for both teams and individual players, plus revenue sharing.

“While our most avid fans felt a void, they kept sticking by us because they knew things could not go on as they were,” Bettman said. “The place where we would have lost the fans is if we had come back with just a Band-Aid.”

Ten NHL teams report average home attendance at or above their arena’s capacity this season, with eight other teams at better than 90 percent.

Ratings for hockey on regional sports networks are up 60 percent, the commissioner said, and ratings for TSN’s coverage of the sport in Canada have tripled. National ratings on Comcast-owned OLN have been low, but Bettman defended the network, calling it “a miracle” that it was able to hire talent and broadcast games about six weeks after being awarded the rights. He said ratings should rise once OLN improves its production and is carried by more providers.

Bettman said the league’s new rule changes, which include a shootout system to break ties and adjustments to speed up the game, have been a hit with fans because they place an emphasis on skill and speed. And he credited the new rules for triggering a 40 percent decrease in on-ice fights.

The commissioner defended hockey’s presence in Washington, despite the Capitals’ dismal start and league-low attendance. He said owner Ted Leonsis is doing the right thing by trying to establish a core of young players to build toward the future.

“All teams go through cycles,” he said.

Bettman said the NHL plans to make better use of technology to promote the game, pointing to its recent broadcast deal with XM Radio. The further use of high-definition and widescreen televisions will also make watching hockey easier for casual fans and the NHL Network, now widely available in Canada, eventually will be a staple of cable television packages. Meanwhile, Bettman said the league is talking with Reebok about a redesign of team uniforms that would be ready for next season.

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