- The Washington Times - Wednesday, February 27, 2008

The Washington Capitals’ deals to acquire a highly touted goalie, left wing and center at the trade deadline yesterday are a sign that all teams can afford to compete under the NHL’s economic structure, commissioner Gary Bettman said.

“This should make for an exciting end of the season, whenever it may end,” Bettman said at Kettler Capitals Iceplex in Arlington. “It shows ownership commitment and as importantly demonstrates how the system works so that everybody can do it.”

The NHL is in its third season since the yearlong work stoppage that resulted in a new labor agreement and a salary cap. The deal was designed to help teams like the Caps that lost millions of dollars in an attempt to keep up with the league’s larger-market teams.

The Caps’ acquisition of Cristobal Huet, Matt Cooke and Sergei Federov yesterday marked the first time since 2001 that the team has been a buyer at the trade deadline.

Audio: NHL Commissioner Gary Bettman discusses the Caps turnaround, steroids, and the economics of hockey

“Every team now can afford to be competitive,” Bettman said. “Now it’s a question of team-building skills, chemistry and how you use the resources that are available. This notion of tracking how much somebody is spending doesn’t make sense in our sport anymore, because everybody’s got to be within a range and within that range everybody can be competitive.”

The Caps’ trades follow the record 13-year, $124 million contract extension to star Alex Ovechkin last month.

“There could have been no more definitive statement of [the team’s] desire to build this team for the long term and make it a successful franchise on the Washington sports scene,” Bettman said.

But the commissioner did indicate reservations about the contract because of its length, which leaves the Caps little flexibility if Ovechkin’s skills fade in later years.

“Shorter-term contracts, as an operational matter, is the way I would go,” he said. “Having said that, when you have special player and a franchise that’s looking to commit to him and have him to commit to them for his career, time will tell how good this contract will turn out to be.”

League-wide, Bettman said he expects the NHL to set a new record for attendance for the third straight season, averaging more than 17,000 in official attendance a game.

The Caps rank 26th out of 30 teams in attendance, averaging 14,657 a game. But it is believed the Caps rank higher in actual paid spectators, and the team has seen a 20 percent boost in attendance since the Ovechkin signing. Local television ratings have increased about 40 percent on Comcast SportsNet.

Bettman also said he expects league revenues to increase for the third straight year and said he is comfortable with national television deals with NBC and Versus despite low ratings. Versus recently picked up an option to carry the NHL for three more years.

“In terms of what we think we need and how Versus is handling us, we like where we are,” Bettman said.

The commissioner visited with the Caps yesterday as part of a trip that includes an appearance today before the House Subcommittee on Commerce, Trade and Consumer Protection, which is looking into the issue of steroids in sports. The commissioners of several other pro sports also are expected to testify.

Bettman said he is happy to speak to the committee but is wary of any suggestion of a broad steroids policy for all sports, especially given the league’s relatively clean steroids record. The NHL’s steroid policy calls for a 20-game suspension for a first offense, 60-game suspension for a second and lifetime ban for a third. Only one player, Minnesota Wild defenseman Sean Hill, has received a suspension under the policy.

“While it may not be typical relative to other businesses, we do understand the place that sports and our athletes have in society and we may have a greater responsibility,” he said. “But having said that … there’s no sense this is an area that needs to be overlegislated, and in fact I am concerned if there’s an approach that’s one size fits all.”

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