DeCock

Bettman sees city in whole new light

Staff WriterFebruary 21, 2009 

— He saw the new hotels. He toured the convention center. He walked the streets that have changed so much over the past few years.

Friday was hardly the first day NHL commissioner Gary Bettman has spent in Raleigh, but he acknowledged it was a different city than he saw during the last major NHL events here, the 2004 draft and 2006 Stanley Cup finals.

During his annual visit to the market, he saw a city and an area now capable of hosting the NHL All-Star Game he said in 2001 he would deliver no later than 2006. And Bettman stepped up his rhetoric accordingly: "We will get the Triangle into the rotation."

Bettman wasn't saying when, and the league has yet to make an official site visit, but all indications point toward 2013. That's seven years later than Bettman originally promised the game would be here, before the NHL decided the area wasn't ready, but better late than never.

The first available opening is in 2012, and the Carolina Hurricanes were hoping to grab that date a year ago, but it now appears headed for Ottawa. There is no All-Star Game next season because of the Winter Olympics, and the 2011 All-Star Game will be hosted by the Phoenix Coyotes.

"We know we owe one, and we will deliver on that," Bettman said. "And frankly, with the new infrastructure that's in place, we can do a better job of hosting the events of an All-Star weekend and Raleigh can show itself off better."

That wasn't the only good news Bettman delivered to the Hurricanes on Friday. Based on his comments, the Canes can count on the salary cap holding steady for a few years after jumping to $56.7 million this season from $39 million when it was introduced for the 2005-06 season.

To keep up, the Hurricanes are spending about $10 million more on salaries than they did during the 2003-04 season, the last before the lockout, and revenues haven't grown enough to cover the difference without making the playoffs. The Hurricanes lost more than $4 million last season.

While the NHL's revenue-growth projections have slipped only slightly because of the economy, from 7 percent to 5 or 6 percent, that translates to only a 1 percent increase in the salary cap because of the return to normalcy of the Canadian dollar, which inflated the cap during the past two seasons.

The real hit in the revenue department could come next season, after contracts with sponsors expire and season tickets are renewed [or not]. That's when the NHL would really feel the impact of the current economy, which could see the cap decline for the first time.

"I cannot predict next season," Bettman said. "The first two road signs we would see are playoff ticket sales and season-ticket renewals. That will begin to give us an indication of what things will look like."

Of more concern for the Canes was their inability to grow their revenue at the same pace as the league last season, in part because of the blip caused by the 2006 playoffs, which cost them about $2 million in revenue-sharing money from the NHL.

Attendance is almost identical to last season going into Friday's game against the Tampa Bay Lightning, but at higher ticket prices, which should give the Canes a chance to close the gap -- but it could be an issue again if the Canes fall out of playoff contention over the next month.

Bettman said there's no impetus to revisit those requirements with the NHL Players' Association in the face of economic hardship, even if newer franchises like Carolina are hit harder by the recession than their more established counterparts further north.

"The clubs get a fairly generous revenue-share contribution," Bettman said. "It's worked extremely well so far. I think for us to be making a change which would be based on speculation isn't appropriate. We'll see how it continues to work."

The Hurricanes may not be able to expect any help there, but an All-Star Game would be a boost for the franchise and the Triangle. After watching the NHL stall for years, Friday saw some real movement in that direction.

Bettman saw how much the Triangle has grown. And the Triangle saw, for the first time, the All-Star Game legitimately on the horizon.

luke.decock@newsobserver.com or (919) 829-8947

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