Right now things are OK financially in the National Hockey League, commissioner Gary Bettman says, but the day of reckoning may be upon them.
Say around Monday, April 13, when the regular schedule has come to an end and everyone starts taking a hard look at playoff sales.
"While we're doing OK this year, nobody has any idea in any business what's going to happen next year," said Bettman, on his annual all-star game visit with Ron MacLean and Hockey Night in Canada.
"We have to be cautious, we have to be careful, we have to be mindful of our expenses, but the first indication of how we may be likely to do... will come when we start selling playoff tickets."
Bettman touched on a wide range of topics in his chat with MacLean, but economics was at the forefront, as it is in all professional sport.
The commissioner has faced criticism for painting too rosy a picture recently, but he put up a spirited defence on the CBC while the band Simple Plan blared away down on the Montreal ice surface between the second and third periods of the all-star game.
"I think it's a realistic picture," said Bettman, who admitted the league had projected more growth than will happen.
"But we're still going to have real economic growth of between five and six per cent, which in this economic climate is amazing.
"Part of it may be because a lot of our selling" — including season tickets, private boxes, advertising revenue, and so forth — "was done before the season started. Part of it may be the strength of the game and how terrific our fans are."
Situation in Phoenix is salvageable
MacLean queried Bettman about how the economic facts of life are affecting struggling franchises, specifically the Phoenix Coyotes, who are rumoured to be out of cash and perhaps facing a move to another city.
There is thought to be a potential new owner lined up if the city of Glendale, Ariz., will reopen their lease with the team and make it more attractive.
"I think that's an over-simplification," Bettman said. "Phoenix needs a capital infusion, either some new minority partners or even somebody buying the whole club — there's no secret to that.
"How attractive the franchise will be for potential new capital infusion may depend on what the lease looks like. The current lease is not particularly attractive."
Bettman revealed there "are lots of people" the league is talking to, but "you don't sell franchises overnight."
Coyotes only getting what's coming to them
The NHL has been giving money to the Coyotes to help sustain them, the commissioner said, but those are only funds they would "otherwise be entitled to" and are merely getting early.
Included are such things as revenue-sharing money and funds from national television deals.
However, taking the team out of the desert is not being considered at this time.
"Relocation is only a matter of last resort," Bettman told MacLean. "It's not fair to fans to let them invest financially and emotionally in our game and then turn our backs on them.
"The only time you do that is when you have absolutely no choice and you've explored all of your options."