Toronto, Canada – By Steve Ginsburg
NEW YORK (Reuters) - The National Hockey League will expand into new markets before it relocates franchises from current cities, Commissioner Gary Bettman said on Tuesday.
However, expansion of the league's 30 teams is not on the immediate horizon, Bettman told the Reuters Global Media Summit.
"Moving clubs from their current locations is not something we're planning on doing," Bettman said.
"However, I know there is substantial interest in a number of places in Canada and we are interested in that interest, be it from Winnipeg or Quebec City or even southern Ontario.
"The fact is we're not seeking to relocate any franchises and as a result expansion would be the way to satisfy that interest. But in this economic climate, I'm not exactly comfortable that this is the right time to be expanding."
In a wide-ranging discussion, Bettman said the NHL was still undecided whether or not to take part in the 2014 Sochi Olympics and that league revenues were stable during the challenging economic climate.
Several NHL teams are facing financial issues, including Columbus, Tampa, Dallas and Phoenix, which filed for bankruptcy protection earlier this year and was purchased by the league.
Bettman denied there was a crisis.
"There are franchises in all sports in this environment that are losing money," said the 57-year-old Bettman. "We're not the only league in that regard. But the tales of despair are greatly exaggerated.
"Yes, there are some clubs that need to be doing better but not one is in what I would call dire straits or anything close to it."
Bettman defended the NHL's move in the 1990s into non-traditional markets such as Florida and the southwestern United States.
"Carolina won the Stanley Cup, Dallas, Anaheim -- these are franchises that have been very well followed and supported," he said. "Tampa won the Stanley Cup and led the league in attendance three years ago.
"Sometimes franchises in any sport go through cycles... Chicago was among the bottom two or three teams in attendance three years ago. And it came back very dramatically.
"People will say, 'Chicago is a traditional market.' But Chicago for a number of years didn't perform particularly well. Each of the markets can support their franchises.
"If you look case-by-case there are generally reasons and issues that can be addressed and are being addressed."
Bettman said league revenues were withstanding the recession as well as could be expected.
"In this challenging and difficult economic climate, we're actually doing okay," he said. "Our clubs are projecting to be anywhere from flat to up a percent. Or perhaps down a percent.
"But if you're looking at how we're holding up, compared to other leagues, we're doing well."
(Editing by John Mehaffey)