Two of the nine owners of the Calgary Flames are bailing out on the club, but NHL commissioner Gary Bettman on Saturday lauded the seven who will stay.

Bettman said the decision by seven limited partners to buy out the shares of Ron Joyce and Grant Bartlett showed confidence the NHL will curb runaway salaries and operating costs in its next collective bargaining agreement with the players.

Joyce and Bartlett reportedly wanted out because they didn't see a future for NHL hockey in Canada, where teams struggle to compete with U.S. clubs due to higher taxes and a steep exchange rate.

"If Mr. Joyce and Mr. Bartlett believe what you say they believe, then I believe it is good that the remaining seven owners believe in what we are doing, believe in the Calgary Flames and are prepared to stand up and make sure it happens," Bettman said after a two-hour board of governors meeting at the NHL all-star game.

Bettman said the league is committed to keeping the six Canadian franchises in Canada and committed to curbing costs so that all teams can be competitive.

The issue is expected to come to a head after the current agreement with the players expires after the 2003-2004 season, when either a lengthy strike or lockout is likely.

He said the league may be open to revenue sharing between the 30 clubs, but only in a system that includes what he called "cost certainty," or a salary cap.

He admitted that inflation in player salaries was in decline under the current system and "we will see where we are when this agreement is over."

Salary increases dropped from about 20 per cent annually to about five per cent in 1999-2000 and to about four per cent this season, he said, citing NHL Players' Association figures.

With a new agreement or not, Bettman said, the league needs an agreement "that works for all teams.

"We are committed to doing that in large part because it will ensure the future of the Canadian teams."

Canada's six NHL franchises, other than Toronto, are in flux of late.

The storied Montreal Canadiens were sold Wednesday to Colorado-based businessman George Gillett and the Ottawa Senators are looking for new investors, likely to include New York beverage king Nelson Peltz.

The money-losing Vancouver Canucks also have an American owner while the Edmonton Oilers are glued together by a multitudinous local consortium.

Bettman said the Senators' situation is helped by how well the team is doing, on the ice and at the gate.

"I think at some point, the ownership mix will change and I think it will strengthen the club," Bettman said. "But the club is doing very well on a operational basis and I think that is what spurred the interest."

Bettman said the board received an update on the Montreal sale, but he questioned statements from the Canadiens that approval from the board was expected within six weeks.

He said the approval process had not begun and there were investigations to be done to ensure "this franchise, this jewel, is in strong, capable hands and that its future is secured under good ownership, where it is currently located.

"There is no issue about its relocation. That franchise is not going anywhere."

He praised Gillett as "one heck of a businessman" for his ability to rebuild his fortune after a 1991 bankruptcy.

"The fact that an American wound up buying the Canadiens didn't surprise me because it was a reflection of what we've talked about the last two years -- currency and taxation problems," Bettman said.

"The team, therefore, is less attractive to Canadian buyers. George Gillett gets to buy the team in American dollars, which makes it a better deal for him."

Other matters included:

  • Bettman expects the Phoenix Coyotes' sale to Steve Ellman and Wayne Gretzky to go through by its Feb. 15 deadline.
  • The league is opposed to any more expansion or relocating of teams.
  • The league is reluctant to sue Canadian provinces for a cut of hockey lottery revenues, even if it maintains the lottery corporations are misappropriating league property rights -- that is, the NHL schedule. "I'd rather find other ways to reach the same goal," he said.