Bettman says NHL franchise situation is stable

CHICAGO (AP) — Gary Bettman sounded a little like a real estate agent in his state-of-the-league address.

"The market is not flooded" with teams for sale, the NHL commissioner said Friday at the United Center, a day before Game 1 on the Stanley Cup finals between Chicago and Philadelphia. He was doing his best to quash or at least downplay reports and signs that several NHL clubs are unstable in this shaky economy.

Bettman said the league is "not now dealing with any franchise going out of business or moving," and he expressed hope that such speculation will soon stop.

The commissioner also confirmed Pittsburgh as the next stop for the Winter Classic and seemed worked up about the NHL's relationship with the International Ice Hockey Federation.

Touting the league's business growth, with television ratings and sponsorships up, Bettman said the NHL is committed to keeping a team in Arizona. Confirming that an offer for the financially troubled club was made by investors in Winnipeg, where the franchise was located first, Bettman said he expects the sale of the Coyotes to take place this summer. There are three groups in the mix to buy the team.

As for the Winnipeg group?

"They wanted us to know of their interest, and they have told us that they are prepared to be patient," Bettman said, declining to put a timetable on returning a team there.

Bettman said recent reports that owners of the New York Islanders and Los Angeles Kings are looking to unload their teams are untrue. About clubs looking to reorganize or change owners, Bettman said: "This whole subject gets more attention than it deserves."

Southern Ontario was first pegged as the place the Coyotes could move and widely seen as a logical site for the next new NHL team, but Bettman said the league is "obviously not looking to expand" and that it always tries to avoid relocation.

He also said that Winnipeg and Quebec are higher-priority markets. The Jets and Nordiques moved away in the 1990s.

"I'd like to try and fix something that I wish might not have happened in the first place, not unlike what we did in Minnesota," Bettman said, referring to the North Stars' move to Dallas and subsequent grant of an expansion franchise, the Wild.

Bettman's tone turned sharper when asked about the IIHF's recent criticism of players skipping the world championship.

"Well, you just hit one of my hot spots," Bettman said.

The commissioner insisted that "nobody should write the headline that says we're dropping out of the world championships," but he suggested participation in the May event should be reviewed. The league has not committed to the 2014 Winter Olympics in Sochi, Russia, either. The decision is to be made jointly with the players' union.

"I'm not happy with the way the IIHF somehow has an entitlement to these great athletes who risk their careers and put themselves out of their own time without anything but love of country," Bettman said, adding: "If I sounded a little passionate on the subject, I apologize."

He paused briefly, then said, "Actually, I don't."

The now-annual Winter Classic on Jan. 1, 2011 — that's 1-1-11, Bettman noted — will include another appearance by the Penguins, who will host the Washington Capitals at Heinz Field, the home turf of the Steelers. Pittsburgh played at Buffalo in the first Winter Classic on New Year's Day 2008.

Chicago's Wrigley Field and Boston's Fenway Park have also hosted the event, and Bettman said he expects the Capitals to host it in the next two or three years.

The league also wants to revive the Heritage Classic, initially held in 2003 in Edmonton against Montreal, the first time an NHL official game was held outdoors. Pending committee approval, Calgary will play Montreal outside at McMahon Stadium on Feb. 20.

On other subjects:

— The full 2010-11 schedule will be revealed earlier than usual, on June 22. The regular season is set to begin on Oct. 7.

— Bettman said a variety of new formats for the All-Star game are under review, but he declined to offer specifics.

— The league will visit Russia for the first time in 20 years when the Hurricanes and Coyotes play exhibition games against Kontinental Hockey League teams in October. In 1990, the Canadiens and North Stars traveled to the Soviet Union for a goodwill tour.

— Bettman denied speculation that the salary cap would drastically decrease next season, saying it could rise by about $2 million.