Bettman praises state of NHL play

NHL Commissioner Gary Bettman is happy with new league

"Remarkable" isn't a word NHL commissioner Gary Bettman tosses around but it's how he's describing the state of hockey after a year away due to the lockout.

Addressing the media on Friday in Washington, Bettman called the new game more fluid and action packed. He attributes its improvement to smart hockey fans and a total overhaul of the league's economic system, which features a salary cap.

The facts seem to speak for themselves. Attendance is up more than five per cent in most markets and television ratings are on the rise, especially in Canada.

"Oh, do I love Canada," Bettman told a National Press Club lunch crowd, noting that ratings have risen 50 per cent on CBC's Hockey Night in Canada and a whopping 200 per cent on TSN since the 2003-04 season.

"Who ever believed it could come back this strong? Actually we did."

"Now the team's ability to compete is based upon its hockey, front office and team-building skills, not on the team's ability to pay," Bettman said. "We have emerged as partners with our players and our fans."

While it appears Canadian hockey fans are truly embracing the game, the same can't be said about Americans. Crowds have been sparse and downright dismal in locales such as Washington, Buffalo and New Jersey. Also, the Outdoor Life Network in the United Stated is experiencing low ratings.

Bettman points out hockey-strong American cities such as Detroit and Philadelphia are faring well.

"Our fans have set an all-time attendance for the month of October and we're playing to over 91 per cent of capacity.

"Mere months ago, this league faced what some - not we, but some - characterized as the worst crisis in our history."

The commissioner said factors like high ticket prices, the instability of franchises and a huge gap beteen the "have and have-nots" drove home the need for a facelift.

"There were simply too many bankruptcies and too many owners who had enough of losing money or not being competitive and too many fans distracted by our problems.

"Things had to get fixed and this conviction was shared by all 30 of our teams."

Canadian teams, Bettman suggests, have been fixed best of all. He said they're doing "spectacularly well."

"The way this system now works, all teams can be competitive in terms of talent on the ice," he said.

"All franchises can be not only survivors but fully competitive teams under the new NHL," and the new revenue-sharing program means Canadian teams won't suffer because of a lower dollar compared with the U.S.

Despite the Canada-wide success, hockey fans in Winnipeg and Quebec City shouldn't get their hopes up about the league returning to their small-market locales. Bettman said that's "not something we're looking at right now. It's not on the radar screen."