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Big goal for NHL chief is keeping recession on ice

N.J. resident’s business playbook bolsters box offices in downturn

When it comes to national popularity, ice hockey faces a challenge in throwing a big enough body check to disrupt the other pro sports in the United States. While only six of the National Hockey League’s 30 teams play in Canada, and while expansion and relocation have introduced rinks to Texas, Georgia and Florida, many still associate the game…


Gary Bettman, National Hockey League commissioner, says the league has emerged from the recession in a relatively strong position. [Christina Mazza]

“If you’re in the business of professional sports, the game on the ice has to be as compelling, as exciting, as entertaining, as skillful as possible,” he said, “and so everything we attempt to do to grow the game or to grow the business of the game must start with a healthy game.” Among those measures: instituting rules changes to hasten the pace of the game, having certain teams open their seasons in European cities, and the wildly popular Winter and Heritage classics — outdoor games held in football and baseball stadiums that accommodate much larger crowds than standard hockey arenas can hold.

As a result, Bettman said, the league is emerging from the recession in relatively strong condition. “Our season ticket renewals, league-wide, were at about 88 percent, which was actually up, in terms of percentage of renewal,” at about 4 percent higher than last year, he said.

Bettman’s roots are close to the Garden State: Though raised in Queens and Long Island, N.Y., he’s adopted New Jersey as his home after he “married a Jersey girl,” his wife, Shelli Bettman. He commutes by car to the NHL office on the Avenue of the Americas, in Manhattan.

His Saddle River home is closer to the New Jersey Devils’ old address in East Rutherford, but Bettman heaped praise on the Prudential Center, both as a facility and for the role it can play in Newark.

“It’s a magnificent arena, as nice as there is anywhere, particularly for hockey,” said Bettman, adding that its accessibility to public transit provides a major advantage over the Izod Center. “So you got a better location, better access and a better building. Finally, I love what it’s doing and will be doing for the city of Newark.”

Bettman said the arena is contributing to a turnaround in Newark that is being encouraged by Mayor Cory Booker.

“I’m one of the people who remembers the riots” of 1967, Bettman said. “To now have a magnet that attracts a couple of million people a year to downtown Newark, when these people might not have ever chosen to go there, I think, is part of the rebirth that Mayor Booker has envisioned.”

The Devils are hoping to bring even more people to the Brick City following the off-season signing of superstar forward Ilya Kovalchuk to a deal that will keep the 27-year-old Russian in Newark for the rest of his career. The signing wasn’t without controversy, with an arbitrator called in to determine whether the contract violated the league’s collective bargaining agreement, but Bettman said it appropriately ended with a revised contract.

Bettman praised the team’s ownership — in particular, general manager Lou Lamoriello — for building a strong franchise.

“This is a team that has consistently, over time, performed extraordinarily well,” Bettman said. “This is an extraordinarily competitive team that has had a great deal of success … you have to give Lou Lamoriello credit.”

TN3b_101110Devils owner Jeff Vanderbeek said he appreciated Bettman’s view of the arena and organization. “There’s no doubt that people are buying on to this in ever-increasing numbers,” Vanderbeek said of the economic impact of the Prudential Center, pointing to the most recent attendance figures as proof the arena has begun to shake off the effects of the recession.

Vanderbeek added that the league “now is in a better place than ever before,” and acknowledged Bettman’s role overseeing this as the commissioner.

The Devils’ success has spilled into high school programs, which Bettman pointed to as a sign of the sport’s health in the state.

“It’s a big deal when you look at the rinks, whether it’s Floyd Hall [in Little Falls], or the Ice House [in Hackensack], or any of the other rinks that are around,” he said. “They’re running all day and all night. There are kids playing, learning to skate, getting instilled in them the values that come from working hard, teamwork, discipline — all the good attributes that come out of our game — and I’m finding it very exciting about how big high school hockey has gotten in New Jersey.”

That’s also a credit to the franchise at the other end of the state, Bettman said, noting that the Flyers have been a dominating force in Philadelphia sports.

“The excitement during the Stanley Cup final, during their whole playoff run, was palpable,” Bettman said of the last season. “Flyers fans are about as passionate and as intense as anywhere I’ve ever seen for any team in any sport.“

The challenge for the NHL now is building on the success of last year’s Stanley Cup Final, which drew the highest TV ratings for hockey in 36 years. It’s particularly critical since the league will be negotiating new TV contracts this year.

“We had such a strong season last season, we really think it’s something to build on,” Bettman said.

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