Sunday, February 22, 2009

NHL Commissioner Gary Bettman Visits Nashville

National Hockey League Commissioner Gary Bettman was in Nashville Thursday for a full day of activities as he continues his annual tour around all the league cities.

Early in the day, Bettman paid a social visit to Tennessee Governor Phil Bredsen and Nashville Mayor Karl Dean before having a luncheon and meetings with the entire Nashville Predators ownership group.

After lunch, Bettman hosted his weekly radio show from the Sommet Center’s new XM studio. The show is broadcast worldwide by XM Home Ice radio and radio. As guests, he had Predators owner David Freeman, GM David Poile and Coach Barry Trotz.

The Commissioner discussed the long term relationship between Trotz and Poile in Nashville and how the pairing has lasted thorough the entire length of the Predator franchise.

Poile explained his philosophy, “I pride myself on good relationships in work and in life in general. With Barry, it has been easy. Not only is he a good coach, but he is also a good person. Over the years there have been a lot of highs and lows and no one handles it better than Barry”.

Poile continued, “Many times in the NHL there are a lot of knee-jerk reactions. Many times emotional decisions are made, not necessarily based on what happens on the ice. After a bad game is not a good time to reflect on highs and lows or make important decision."

Bettman and Barry Trotz discussed coaching in a non-traditional market. Barry related that friends in the Winnipeg (Canada) area are often critical that Nashville has an NHL team and they don’t. “Nashville is drawing better now than the best year they ever had in Winnipeg. Here it is a different mindset, we would sell out every game if they were all played on Saturday night”.

Lead owner David Freeman added, “We hope that others see that Nashville, Tennessee wants to be a part of the hockey world. It is confusing why others don’t swell up with pride and say, "Wow, these people want to be a part of the game", as opposed to pulling against us as a market”.

Freeman was positive about where the team stands financially, “We have good viability as a franchise. We made a small profit last year and expect to break even this year. We are pleased with our progress. As a franchise we are ten years into it. Montreal is celebrating their 100th year so we are 90 years behind them in developing fans as kids in order to grow the game”.

When asked about the “Boots" Del Biaggio situation where 27% of the Predators ownership is tied up in federal bankruptcy court, Freeman was direct in his response. “Honestly, we try not to talk about it. His issues are personal. No one saw it coming. In the end it is our hope and expectation that it will have no effect on the club, and we see where it can be a benefit. Herb Fritch and I have provided sixty to seventy million in guarantees to cover Boots' obligations”.

In closing the radio show, Bettman commented, “So as a franchise, you are not going anywhere, except maybe the playoffs." Freeman was in full agreement.

Later in the day, Commissioner Bettman held a 30 minute press conference at the Sommet Center that covered a broad range of topics concerning the Predators and the league in general.

Bettman addressed the recent concern of many that the Predators were rumored to be buying their own tickets in order to reach attendance figures to qualify for the league’s revenue sharing plan. “That doesn’t work. Based on the information that I got today, and based on the attendance, especially in the last nine games, they (Predators) have every expectation that they are going to meet the threshold on their own, assuming that everyone continues going to the game, which is very important”.

Continuing, he said, “The franchise is headed in the right direction and is on solid footing. They could have done without the hiccup (Del Biaggio bankruptcy) but based on the lunch I had today, everybody is committed and, long-term, it’s going to work. The expectation was that just because the franchise changed hands to a local group that it would happen overnight and that’s not realistic. The media speculation from other areas about Nashville is just that, speculation, and is completely unfounded."

Bettman was questioned further about the Del Biaggio bankruptcy and whether the team has a right of refusal on who the 27% could be sold to. He indicated that he wasn’t an expert on the local ownership agreement but that the league "has the right of approval as well”.

Bettman addressed Alexander Radelov breaking his contract with Nashville and jumping to Russia’s KHL. He indicated that he was very concerned about the breach and it is a primary reason that the NHL and KHL have been unable to come to a transfer agreement between leagues. “Radulov is in breach of his contract with the Predators. He owes the Predators a year under his contract. If he wants to play in the NHL, he will have to deal with the Nashville Predators”.

While Bettman was in Nashville, the NHL announced that four teams would open the season in Europe next year. Chicago and Florida will play two games in Helsinki, Finland while Detroit and St. Louis will play a pair in Stockholm, Sweden.

Bettman explained the league's strategy. “Twenty-eight percent of the league’s players are from Europe, so there is a lot of interest there in the best league in the world. By looking at clicks on we see a high level of interest there. Also, the players enjoy it. Detroit has seven Swedes on the team, so going to Stockholm to play in front of people that saw them develop there is very exciting for them."

When questioned if the league had any plans to change the rules on fighting in light of last month’s death during a Canadian senior league fight and the subsequent OHL ban of fighting, Bettman indicated that it would be addressed during the off season. “Based on discussions with our constituent groups, I don’t foresee a point that fighting as part of the game will be eliminated. I do think we will have a good candid discussion about the role of fighting. I do believe we will discuss the rules of engagement, how fights start, what happens when the helmet comes off, the takedown, are all things we need to look at to modify how fighting is done to perhaps make it a little safer."

One of the more controversial events in the league this year was the suspension of former Dallas Star Sean Avery for “conduct unbecoming to the game”. As part of his “rehabilitation”, Avery received “treatment” for anger management.

When asked if Avery was free to return to the NHL, Bettman explained, “He’s welcome back from a league standpoint. He’s served his suspension and is under contract with the Dallas Stars. It will be a club decision (Dallas) as to what to do with him. He would have to clear waivers to return to the NHL with another team since Dallas has indicated they don’t want him”.

In a bit of levity at the conclusion of the press meeting, Bettman was asked what the league office could do to help the Predators score some goals. Bettman was emphatic, responding, “My suiting up wouldn’t help!” He then followed with a parting shot at the Russian league, which he appeared openly bitter about. He pointed out, “Radulov, his 30 goals would have helped.”

Based on all the information relayed by Commissioner Betman and the local ownership throughout the visit, Predator fans should be encouraged by the indications that Nashville is a healthy franchise and is under little threat to be sold or moved to another city.

Financially, the Predators appear to be on the most solid ground that they have experienced in the team’s 11-year history. In spite of the inconsistent play on the ice this year, the Predator ownership group should be commended for bringing stabilization to a franchise that was on the verge of leaving town less than two years ago.

Buddy Oakes for predsOnTheGlass and The Columbia Daily Herald

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