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Gary Bettman Gives His State of the League Address, Rips IIHF

May 28, 2010 – 5:29 PM
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Adam Gretz

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CHICAGO -- NHL commissioner Gary Bettman gave his state of the league address and discussed a number of topics a day before the Stanley Cup Final was set to commence -- saving his most passionate statements for the end at the United Center on Friday.

Asked about the International Ice Hockey Federation (IIHF) and its recent criticism of NHL players for declining invites to the World Championships and the possible impact of not having pros from the world's top league in the 2014 Winter Olympics in Sochi, Russia, the normally even-tempered Bettman let loose.

"You just hit one of my hot spots," said Bettman, with fire in his eyes. "If you remember the debate [IIHF chief] Rene Fasel and I had during my media availability in Vancouver, one of the things I said . . . was I don't believe the IIHF respects our game, our players, our business or our schedule."

"What was said by the IIHF during the World Championships," he continued, "was exactly that. As soon as I saw the article I put a call into Rene Fasel and I told him that what he said was inappropriate, out of line and simply wrong, and that he needed to make a public apology. So I'm not happy with the way the IIHF somehow feels it has an entitlement to these great athletes who risk their careers, and put themselves out of their own time without anything but love of country to be belittled by the IIHF."He finished the answer by saying, "If I sounded a little passionate on the subject I apologize," before briefly pausing and saying, "actually, I don't."

When asked if the NHL can take away the IIHF's right to use their players in the World Championships, Bettman said that, along with the decision to use NHL players in the Olympics, it is a joint decision with the Players Association and that it will likely be discussed in the future. He did add, however, that "nobody should write the headline that we're dropping out of the World Championships."

The NHL has been part of four Olympics since debuting in Nagano in 1998 and players will likely push back against any attempt to keep them out of the 2014 Sochi Games. Several NHL owners don't like they have to stop the season and send cornerstones of their franchises to play in the Olympics with no compensation.

League officials also aren't keen on the fact the Worlds are playing at the same time as the Stanley Cup Playoffs.

"It's all political," Buffalo Sabres goalie Ryan Miller, the MVP of the 2010 Winter Games men's tournament as a member of Team USA, told FanHouse. "You look at all the sports that are celebrated worldwide, everybody jumps at the chance to play for their country. Fans react to that. Hockey needs to be bigger than just the NHL."

Two-time reigning league MVP Alex Ovechkin said he'll play for his native Russia in 2014 even without the blessing of the NHL.

"I don't think you can go against the league," Flyers defenseman Kimmo Timonen, a member of Team Finland for each of the four Winter Games where NHL players have been a part of. "If they say 'no,' that means no. I understand Ovechkin wants to play in Russia, but I don't think you can go against the rules."

Other key items discussed during the 40-minute press conference, included...

On the Winter Classic and Heritage Classic: Bettman officially announced the worst-kept secret of the week when he confirmed that the Pittsburgh Penguins will host the Washington Capitals in the Bridgestone Winter Classic at Heinz Field on January 1, 2011. Shortly after, he also made it known that due to the heavy fan interest and excitement in the area regarding the event, the Capitals will also be hosting the annual New Years Day game within the next two to three years. That decision is likely to anger the fans that are tired of seeing the same seven or eight teams on national television, while the Penguins, and now the Capitals, will have already been involved in multiple outdoor games. The decision, however, makes perfect sense for one reason, and one reason only: ratings.

Along with the Winter Classic, Bettman also announced that there are tentative plans (pending approval from the competition committee) for the Calgary Flames to host the Montreal Canadiens on February 20 in another outdoor game (The Heritage Classic). The Canadiens, of course, played in the first Heritage Classic back in 2003 when they visited the Edmonton Oilers.

The commissioner was later asked if he felt having multiple outdoor games in a single season carried a risk of potentially diluting the event.

"I believe based on the sense that we're getting, particularly north of the 49th parallel from our fans, that there was a real interest and desire to have us do another outdoor game in Canada," said Bettman. "The Winter Classic in the United States has worked extraordinarily well for us, and we wanted to make sure our fans in Canada knew we were paying attention to their interests and desires as well."

Economics and the Salary Cap: Bettman said that he believes revenues for the season will be up four percent.

"Some of it is real and some of it is the Canadian dollar," he said. "Not all of it is real, not all of it is the Canadian dollar, but it is a mix of the four percent."

He also said that if the Players Association elects to take the five percent escalator, the salary cap could go up "a little over $2 million dollars" for next season. Bettman said he does not know if the Association will take that escalator, however.

"Over the last two years with the economy the way it has been there has been rampant speculation, both last year and this, that the cap was going down 20 percent," said Bettman. "Nothing could be further from the truth. The business remains strong. Not as strong, perhaps, in terms of the speed of growth we were seeing, and would like to continue to see, as it was before the economic downturn, but last year was record revenues, and this currently concluded season will be record revenues as well."

Bettman also said that he does not know who will take over the Players Association or if it will exercise to extend the Collective Bargaining Agreement. "None of those issues is anything we are either involved in, or having any control of. Like you, we are going to have to wait and see."

On the State of the Coyotes: "Their hope and expectation is that they will conclude a building arrangement with a prospective purchaser, they're talking to three groups right now, in the next few days, few weeks, and that this franchise will ultimately be able to be sold over the summer. That is my hope, that is my expectation."

Regarding what would have happened if the city of Glendale didn't step up to support the franchise for next season, Bettman said: "We would have been forced to move it, there has been a lot of speculation about Winnipeg. Winnipeg did make a bonafide offer, but we never concluded a deal."

Senior Hockey Writer A.J. Perez contributed to this story from Chicago. NHL Blogger Adam Gretz reported from Pittsburgh.
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