NEW YORK (AP) — Whatever damage was caused by the latest long NHL lockout, the league isn't feeling the fallout as it gets set to start this year's playoffs.
With just a few days left in the shortened 48-game season, a look back shows that fans are still flocking to arenas and tuning in on TV sets.
NHL Commissioner Gary Bettman told a meeting of Associated Press Sports Editors on Friday that teams are filling up their buildings to 97.4 percent of capacity, and television ratings on a national level in the United States and Canada, as well as in local markets, are up considerably.
"We may not have as large a fanbase as a couple of the other major league sports, but there are no more avid, passionate fans in all of sports than ours," Bettman said. "We believe in the strength of our game."
He also has the numbers to prove it.
Bettman said some teams have reported ratings gains of double and triple digits this year. And that is just from a regular season that was delayed from October until January and was in jeopardy from happening at all until the NHL and the players' association hammered out a new 10-year collective bargaining agreement to save it.
"We don't take our fans for granted," Bettman said. "Our fans are passionate about the game, they get angry when they have reasons to be angry, they are excited when they have reasons to be excited, they are emotional, but most of all they are well-informed. Overwhelmingly, fans understand what we need to do and what we have done.
"They come back because they love the game. We are grateful on a daily basis for our fans."
Bettman said the best thing to come out of this lockout — the second in nine seasons — is that the new agreement with the players' association is one that should ensure harmony for the better part of a decade.
Just because fans came back for a lockout-shortened season in 1995 and then returned after the NHL became the first major North American sports league to cancel an entire season when the 2004-05 campaign was wiped out, doesn't mean that will always be the case.
Taking a one-year hiatus in any business — sports or otherwise — is hardly a recipe for success, despite what the numbers show.
"It doesn't mean there isn't a lot of work to be done, it doesn't mean that we're not continuing to focus as a priority on issues such as player safety, but the business has been strong this season," Bettman said. "We continue to believe that we are in for continued growth."
With a shortened season in which every game seemed to have meaning and an impact on the playoff races, the upcoming postseason will likely have more of the unpredictability of past seasons — such as last season when the Los Angeles Kings went from the No. 8 seed in the Western Conference to Stanley Cup champions.
However, Bettman doesn't buy the notion that this season was unique or more exciting because of fewer games.
"Competitively, this was fairly typical for us, particularly down the stretch run," he said. "Was there some pent up demand? Yes, but I like our 82-game regular season and I don't advocate the business model we had to use this year."
As of Friday, the eight playoff teams in the Eastern Conference had already been determined, and six of eight were settled out West. Those final two teams and all eight first-round matchups were left to be decided over the weekend, with Sunday's lone game — Ottawa at Boston — potentially holding the last piece of the puzzle.
"We think that's phenomenal," Bettman said. "That's why our first round is off the charts in terms of being compelling, grueling, entertaining, exciting. Our competitive balance, we think is the best in sports — certainly the best we have ever had — but I don't think anything compares to it.
"Every game matters because the races are that close. There are no nights that are easy nights that you can write off, because a couple of points may be the difference in making the playoffs."
Which only seems to create more buzz for the league.
While Bettman says the NHL has no current plans to expand or relocate any franchises — not counting the New York Islanders, who are gearing up for a move from Long Island to Brooklyn in a few years — the league seems ready to hold multiple outdoor games outside of the traditional New Year's Day Winter Classic.
No official announcement has been made, and Bettman wasn't willing to issue one on Friday, but it is believed that six outdoor games will be played next season, including two in Yankee Stadium, and one in the warmth of Southern California in Dodger Stadium.
More teams will be able to take part in the experience, and those that have already served as the host are clamoring to do it again. Then there are the cities such as Kansas City, Quebec City and Seattle that would like to have an NHL team of their own.
There is still work to be done if the NHL will again shut down the season so its players can take part in next year's Olympics in Sochi, Russia. Negotiations are ongoing, and hardly easy.
Issues such as taking a break midseason — one year after a lengthy lockout — insurance, travel, accommodations, and major differences in time zones are all hurdles in the way of a deal.
Player interest in going back to the Olympics is strong, especially among Russian players who would like to be able to go home to play. The NHL's business relationship with NBC, which will televise the Games in the U.S., is a positive as far as whether a deal can be worked out to go.
"We think it's good for NBC and CBC (in Canada) and gives us a greater comfort level that we're going to be properly carried and promoted," Bettman said.
One option that isn't on the table is having ice hockey shifted to the Summer Olympics program.
"The IOC has no interest in doing that. It will never see the light of day," Bettman said. "If they want the world's best hockey players to go, we have to reach an accommodation. We have never asked for money. It's never been about that. We understand why it's good for hockey, but it's not as good in some places as others."