306-bettman-100915

Gary Bettman, Commissioner of the National Hockey League, says if the league is to return to Quebec City, there would need to be a new arena for the team. ((Bruce Bennett/Getty Images))

The NHL would be happy to return to Quebec City if a new arena can be built, but it won't enter the political debate to help make it happen, commissioner Gary Bettman said Wednesday.

"I've followed very closely the articles, I've seen the cartoons and, as we've said, if the right circumstances presented themselves, we would like to find a way to go back to Quebec City," Bettman told a news conference in Ottawa, where he announced that the Senators will host the 2012 all-star weekend.

"The issue obviously is the need for a new arena, because in the absence of a new arena it is not possible for us to go back," Bettman continued. "How a new arena gets built, who pays for it, is not something we're getting involved in."

A hot topic on Parliament Hill has been Quebec City's quest for a new rink that could pave the way for the NHL's return. The Nordiques left for Denver to become the Colorado Avalanche in 1995.

At a projected cost of about $400 million, the idea of Ottawa pitching in with $180 million in federal funding has led cabinet ministers and Prime Minister Stephen Harper to weigh in on the matter in recent days, arguing for and against the use of taxpayers' money for pro sports.

On Wednesday, Bettman was asked what his message to Harper would be, and the commissioner said he wouldn't state it in public.

"Well, first of all, if I had a message to the prime minister, then I would give it to him directly. I won't use this forum or any public forum to do it," Bettman replied. "But, more importantly, as I said before, how buildings get financed, who is going to be responsible, how is it going to be paid for, that is a decision that we will not be presumptuous and weigh in on.

"Various constituents, both private and public, are going to have to decide what they think does or does not make sense in a particular case."

Bettman did say, however, that he's been in regular telephone contact with Quebec City Mayor Regis Labeaume and considers the relationship between the mayor and the PM "very cordial, very open."

Among other topics, the commissioner touched on the NHL's decision to fine the New Jersey Devils $3 million US and two draft picks for circumventing the salary cap with their rejected 17-year, $102-million contract with star forward Ilya Kovalchuk.

The Devils will give up their third-round pick in 2011 and a first-round pick for a year of their choice any time over the next four years — a punishment that's deemed harsh, considering the independent arbitrator who voided the contract also ruled that New Jersey had not acted in bad faith.

"The simple fact of the matter is, when there's a finding of circumvention, and there was a finding, it gets punished," Bettman said. "And that's something I've been telling the clubs for as long as we've had this agreement."