CHICAGO — Life, for the National Hockey League, has no earthly right to be as good as it is.
In a perfect world, there would have been a rebellion. Fans would have voted with their feet and walked out on the owners and the players and their mouthpieces when the lockout dragged on and on.
Revenues would have plummeted. TV ratings would have tanked.
Instead, Gary Bettman sat alongside his deputy commissioner, Bill Daly, Wednesday at United Center for his annual Stanley Cup state of the union news conference, sounding gratified and looking justified, explaining just how sunny the outlook is for the NHL -- other than that pesky storm system circling out there in Arizona -- and damned if anyone could think of a really tough question to ask.
The world did not end. Fans did what fans always do, and came back. Maybe a few of the sellout streaks around the league had to be artificially inflated, maybe the claims of boffo crowds league-wide (97% of capacity in the regular season, over 100% in the playoffs) didn’t exactly correspond to what met the naked eye in some buildings.
Maybe the players wore themselves out playing every other night, so that what we saw in the conference finals -- one sweep, one over in five games -- was bound to happen.
Maybe no one really missed the Winter Classic or the all-star game except for the markets involved. Maybe HBO’s 24/7 series, like the New Year’s Day outdoor game it promotes, will simply carry over to next season and the ticked-off corporate partners will be pacified and no one will be any the worse for wear.
And maybe Gary Bettman was betting on all of the above, and was really the least surprised person in the room Wednesday.
“We in sports do the best we can to deal with what takes place in the competition and the business side as well, and sometimes those forces conflict with each other and you don't get to the place you want to get as easy as possible,” he said. “We're doing the best that can be done to deal with the issues that all sports over the last few years have dealt with, for better or for worse. It's not that misery loves company. But there were, in an 18-month period, three labor issues in three different sports.
“The ultimate resolution of those is what determines how the fans come back. If they're comfortable that you've come to a place that makes the game healthy and stable going forward, they tend to be more forgiving than if they think you put a Band-Aid on it.”
Still, it’s difficult to look back now on those four-plus months -- all that empty time in which we went through various stages of irritation, rage, feigned indifference, disbelief and resignation -- without feeling that it was all choreographed, and we were all played like stringed instruments.
But the league has bounced back pretty much exactly as it was pre-lockout, albeit with some temporary downgrades (the hurry-up entry draft, low-rent awards, rush-rush buyout period and straight into free agency). And with all the same questions still hanging: the shaggy-dog story in Phoenix, the unending Olympic negotiations, the unenforced rulebook, the department of player safety’s resurrection of the Wheel of Justice (where it stops, nobody knows) for supplemental discipline.
On the Phoenix situation, the commish came closer than he ever has to giving a deadline for the city of Glendale to fish or cut bait on a new lease agreement for Jobing.com Arena.
"There's a (NHL) board of governors meeting June 27; there's a Glendale city council meeting on June 25. Stuff's gonna happen,” he said.
A couple of weeks, it seems, and if Glendale council hasn’t essentially surrendered the building ... well, Bettman seemed to be saying, he can’t be responsible any more for the fate of the Coyotes. He sounded kind of sorry to be on the verge of giving up, and considering how much personal stake he has in the whole mess, it’s no wonder.
Phoenix is still Plan A, he said, because “we try to avoid franchise relocation. We try to do everything possible. We don't think it's fair to fans. We don't think it's fair, unless you have to move, to do it to communities that build you buildings. We're not going to get into a bake-off situation, where we're going to say, ‘we'd rather be here than there’. We're going to try to preserve what's in place. That's what we've always done, even when it's (eventually) resulted previously in franchise relocation.”
But he also sounded the alarm, one more time, so there’d be no misunderstanding of what’s at stake for Glendale. If the Coyotes had to relocate, he said, “I worry about what's going to happen to the arena if the team isn't there. I think it's likely to get boarded up because they're not going to have enough events to sustain it. I worry about what's going to happen to Westgate and all the businesses and people that are employed there.
“I worry about the impact it will have on the (NFL Arizona Cardinals’) football stadium when it’s got a situation outside its front door that may not be ideal anymore.”
Resolution of the Coyotes issue impacts realignment, and next year’s schedule, which needs to be done in July. The schedule also has to take into account the Olympics, if the NHL participates, and though everyone seems to be optimistic, the league and the players and the International Olympic Committee and the IIHF all have their oars in, and nothing is done yet.
Bettman indicated the Olympic talks may well be tied in with a broader discussion of an expanded international program for the NHL, incorporating world championships, a regular World Cup and premiere games overseas.
But the Coyotes imbroglio also impacts Quebec City, which is actively in the running if the team has to be relocated.
“I don't want to begin a process, particularly publicly, where there's going to be a lot of speculation where the team might go if it moved, because all that would do would be unfairly raise expectations in places, and I don't want to do that to fans in those communities,” said Bettman, indicating the league’s phone is ringing regularly with prospective suitors in other, unnamed cities.
The overriding theme, though, was of prosperity.
“I don't think yet we've come to rest on the (revenue) numbers. I think it's fair to say that we did better than the proportionality of how much of the season (58%) actually got played,” he said.
And based on what he’s seen post-lockout, would he expect revenues next year to be where they were prior to the work stoppage?
“And hopefully beyond,” Bettman said. “I had an Audit Finance and Executive Committee meeting on Monday and we've told them that's our view of the world.”
Heartwarming, isn’t it?
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