The NHL's regular season kicks off across the ocean this week. Get used to it. In a wide-ranging interview with The Canadian Press on the eve of the NHL's 90th season, commissioner Gary Bettman said his league is looking for more contact with the fans in Europe and elsewhere around the world.
"This is a good opportunity to dip our toe in the water," Bettman said. "A third of our players come from outside of North America and the hockey fans in those countries like to follow their players."
The Los Angeles Kings and defending Stanley Cup champion Anaheim Ducks converge on London, England, this week with back-to-back games Saturday and Sunday at the 02 Arena. The rest of the NHL kicks off Oct. 3.
While it may not become an annual event, it's expected the league will play games overseas in future seasons as well. Which begs the question, is the NHL seriously looking at European expansion in the distant future?
"It's nothing we're planning on, but by the same token I'll never say never," Bettman said. "There are many, many, many things that we have to do and have to happen before we can consider it. And there are logistical issues.
"There are arena issues, there are travel issues, and also there is the existing infrastructure of hockey particularly in Europe and we need to be respectful of all of those considerations."
Before the league could ever dream of icing teams in Europe, it must take care of its own backyard - specifically the United States.
On the one hand, never before have so many American kids played the game. There's no better example of that than last June's NHL entry draft where a record 30 per cent of the players taken were U.S.-born. Patrick Kane and James vanRiemsdyk became the first Americans to be drafted 1-2 and for the first time a U.S.-born skater went first overall in back-to-back drafts following Erik Johnson in 2006.
But the perception of the game in the U.S. remains one of a sport that is slip-sliding away from the mainstream following.
"The criticism of our game in the United States, is it frustrating? Sure. But I'm used to it," said Bettman.
They might be playing the game, but not many are watching. The league had brutal TV ratings in the U.S. for the Ottawa-Anaheim Stanley Cup final last spring as well as the regular season in general. And that's what is largely feeding the negative image of the game south of the border.
Bettman continues to be heavily criticized for his decision to move games from U.S. TV sports king ESPN to the fledgling Versus network after the lockout.
"Our TV at the local level is strong - both in Canada and in the United States," said Bettman. "And the U.S. (national TV) is something that will continue to require our attention and work but we like our partnerships and our relationships with NBC and Versus. ... But that's only one metric. If you look at attendance, if you look at the digital space and people who are connecting to us on NHL.com and the club websites, if you look at what we're doing through technology and streaming - all the vital signs are good.
"The metric where we happen to get the most criticism happens to be the metric that is declining over time in importance."
If U.S. TV isn't enough to get a rise from the commissioner, criticism of the collective bargaining agreement definitely does. Bettman's voice fills with emotion has he responds to criticism that the salary cap has risen too high at US$50.3 million and salaries are back to pre-lockout levels.
"I think the agreement has been misconstrued," Bettman said. "People are saying there's a $50-million cap and now we're back to where we were and higher. That statement, when it's made, indicates a fundamental lack of understanding of how the system works."
To wit, Bettman points out that in the pre-lockout season of 2003-04, the top payroll was in the $80-million range with other teams in the 70s and 60s. More importantly, he adds, it's the average payroll that really matters pertaining to dividing up the 55 per cent of the revenue pie to players.
"The average payroll with a $50.3-million cap is $42.3 million," said Bettman. "So that at the end of the year, on average, our teams will have spent $42.3 million - not $50 million."
Bettman continues by pointing back to the 2001-02 season, when the average team payroll was also $42.3 million.
"At the time our revenues were $1.875 billion," he said. "This year the average team payroll - with the $50.3-million cap - will be $42.3 million on revenues of about $2.4 billion. ...
"People tend to confuse the cap with the average salary of years ago."
The cap keeps going up because revenues continue to rise. The critics question how it possibly can be that revenues can continue to go up for a sport desperately hanging on to its Big Four status with the NFL, NBA and Major League Baseball.
"All of our revenues are increasing, local TV, national TV, advertising, sponsorship, licensed product sales," said Bettman. "And why? Because the game is healthier. Why? Because on the ice the game is healthy. Teams are more competitive and there's no focus on franchises going out of business and who can't afford to compete. Everyone can afford to compete because we've got a $16-million (payroll) range and we've got revenue sharing."
The collective bargaining agreement enters its third of six seasons, unless the players opt out after the fourth year. Until the NHL Players' Association chooses a new executive director, it's not clear whether the union will stick it out for the full six years.
"I think it's worked fairly," Bettman said of the CBA. "The players have done well as revenues have increased - as we predicted they would. The clubs are doing better than they were in a significant way. However some clubs still need to do some more work. While they're healthier some of them need to get healthier yet.
"There are probably a variety of issues, if we were given the opportunity in negotiations to re-address, we might focus on a little differently. But fundamentally we like the way the agreement is working."