CHICAGO — With City of Glendale (Ariz.) civic leaders set to meet June 25, and the NHL Board of Governors scheduled to convene two days later, NHL commissioner Gary Bettman on Wednesday predicted “stuff’s going to happen’’ with regard to the uncertain future of the league’s financially-troubled Phoenix franchise.
“We’re still focused on making it work with the Coyotes staying in Arizona,’’ said Bettman, who was joined by NHL deputy commissioner Bill Daly at his State of the League address before Game 1 of the Stanley Cup Final at United Center.
While Bettman also addressed the league’s ongoing negotiations to remain a participant in the Olympics, saying progress has been made, the future of Phoenix’s franchise dominated the discussion.
“I don’t want to begin a process, particularly publicly, where there’s going to be a lot of speculation where the team might go if it moved, because all that would do would be [to] unfairly raise expectations in places, and I don’t want to do that to fans in those communities,” said Bettman. “We’re just going to leave it that we’re still focused on the Coyotes in Arizona.’’
Bettman indicated, however, that the league was reaching the end of its rope as the primary operator of the Coyotes franchise.
“Obviously, we’re getting to the point where some decisions are going to have to be made both by the City of Glendale and by us,’’ Bettman said. “I haven’t set a timeline, but time is running shorter. It’s been a complicated process.
“In our minds we understand we’re dealing with a time frame, but a specific day isn’t going to do it. But time is getting short. This is really going to be a decision that the City of Glendale is going to have to make.’’
Neither Bettman nor Daly would commit to remaining in Arizona next season and Bettman indicated there were a number of markets interested in taking over the franchise. While he declined to be specific, it has been long rumored that Seattle and Quebec City have expressed interest as viable candidates.
“We try to avoid franchise relocation,’’ he said. “We try to do everything possible. We don’t think it’s fair to fans. We don’t think it’s fair, unless you have to move, to do it to communites that build you buildings.
“We’re not going to get involved to where we’re going to say, ‘We’d rather be here than there.’ We’re going to try and preserve what’s in place.
“That’s what we’ve always done even when it’s resulted previously in franchise relocation. That only happens when we’ve exhausted all possibilities.
“We’ve now operated this club for about three years indirectly,’’ the commissioner said. “We’ve had ownership of it. We’ve had great support by the people on the ground there — [chief operating officer] Mike Nealy and [general manager] Don Maloney, in particular, have done a particularly strong job.’’
Bettman said the franchise’s prospects would be greatly enhanced if it were to find a local owner.
“We actually believe if you gave the community an owner, not the league, who said, ‘I’m committed to being here,’ this franchise actually could be successful from a business standpoint,’’ Bettman said.
“We’ve seen what the fan base will do with all the uncertainty. We understand the dynamics from the business community, the broadcasters, media, people who buy suites, naming rights.
“If there was certainty surrounding this franchise, its fortunes would improve dramatically just by virtue of putting in a real owner.’’
On the matter of the Olympic negotiations, Bettman said “some issues have been of concern to us.
“I think we’ve made some progress on them. If you were keeping score, the Players’ Association probably at this point has more open issues than we do, but we’re not done. We’re doing this together. So until it’s all done, it isn’t done.’’
Asked how relieved he was to have a matchup in the Stanley Cup Final between a pair of proud Original Six franchises, especially when it appeared he was close to cancelling the season after the lockout, Bettman replied, “Actually, I was relieved in January when we were able to make a deal going forward.
“We’ve had a very, very strong season in terms of attendance, buildings 97 percent full in the regular season and over 100 percent full in the playoffs, ratings increases, records in some places, locally, nationally, Canada, and US. We’ve had a very exciting, entertaining, and compelling playoffs. That you would want in any season.
“Having the ability to look forward to a decade of labor peace, to me, is the most important thing we were able to accomplish.’’