Winnipeg Free Press - PRINT EDITION

NHL hopes to promote safety without jeopardizing profits

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PEBBLE BEACH, Calif. -- These are good times in the NHL but lurking behind the scenes is the spectre of violence and how it could ruin the work done by commissioner Gary Bettman.

Right behind the curtain of a new TV deal and unprecedented revenue is the malignant mass of violence in the game. Lawsuits are pending and while Bettman zipped the lips of his governors on the subject, it's clear they understand the league must find a way balance the violence it sells and the player safety it needs to promote.

Bettman has delivered a new 12-year national TV deal in Canada worth $5.2 billion, a 10-year and $2 billion broadcast package with NBC in the U.S. and driven league revenues to new heights.

"We're in such a great spot. We're so close to enjoying things we've never been able to achieve," said one league executive during the league's board of governor meetings here this week.

Teams that qualify for a full portion of revenue sharing could collect as much as $45 million next season between national TV rights monies, escrow and the league's sharing program.

With the floor of the salary cap expected to be around $52 million, it's clear Bettman has taken the NHL to a point where gate receipts are not the lone determining factor on whether a franchise can profit.

For all the good news, the NHL's biggest issue remains: How to keep the game physical and exciting while protecting the health of its players.

"We updated the board last meeting in thorough detail on all the efforts we've done over the years on concussions and all player safety," said Bettman. "I think the board is extraordinarily comfortable with what's going on. Based on all the things we do in terms of diagnosis, return to play, decisions and the like we are doing the right things for the players and the game.

"I don't want to get too detailed because obviously now there's a lawsuit pending. The governors were briefed on the lawsuit and on instructions in that regard, start with the fact that the group believes the lawsuit is without merit and that we should vigorously and aggressively defend it."

Bettman understands the predicament the league is in and how they must continually strive to curb the violence in the game, which is both dangerous and grounds for civil actions.

"We have 55,000 hits in the course of a season roughly and there are probably 50 to 100 that we don't like," said Bettman. "While that's a good number as a percentage basis, we're trying to even do better."

Bruins GM Peter Chiarelli said there is now an appetite amongst league executives to lengthen suspensions to eliminate, hopefully, the violence no one wants in the game.

"In general, probably at some point that will happen. I think it's happening. I know there's different takes on different suspensions, but it is happening," said Chiarelli. "Whether there'll be really long ones, it would probably trend that way. I think obviously when you get past a certain number there's more legal proceedings and rights of appeal and whatnot. We'll get to that point some day. I don't know if it's this year, but I think it's trending that way.

"It's tough to change that mid-stream -- it just doesn't change right away. There has to be the due process and it has to evolve and stuff. You can't just say, 'All right, let's change the template.' You can't say that. It's not fair to the process, it's not fair to all the parties."

Veteran Devils GM Lou Lamoriello says a player getting hit with a full- season suspension is inevitable.

"No one wants to see any player get hurt, and I'm being redundant there," he said. "I think the safety committee and the enforcement committee is doing everything they can. The responsibility has to be on the players, also. This is their game, as well as anybody else's game, and they have to have respect for each other.

"Sooner or later somebody is going to (be suspended for) a season. And maybe that fear will stop what we do see and what liberties are taken. Nobody wants that... but it is still a physical game. I don't think we want to take the physicality out of the game."

It's clear the NHL understands it has a problem. What remains unclear, however, is the way to fix it. Or the damage the league could incur if it can't find a solution.

gary.lawless@freepress.mb.ca Twitter: @garylawless

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition December 11, 2013 D1

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About Gary Lawless

Gary Lawless is the Free Press sports columnist and co-host of the Hustler and Lawless show on TSN 1290 Winnipeg and www.winnipegfreepress.com
Lawless began covering sports as a rookie reporter at The Chronicle-Journal in Thunder Bay after graduating from journalism school at Durham College in Ontario.
After a Grey Cup winning stint with the Toronto Argonauts in the communications department, Lawless returned to Thunder Bay as sports editor.
In 1999 he joined the Free Press and after working on the night sports desk moved back into the field where he covered pro hockey, baseball and football beats prior to being named columnist.

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