Booming NHL ready for big steps forward

Next year's Winter Classic in Ann Arbor, Mich., is just one step for the NHL's growth plans AP Photo/Paul Sancya

This season, just returning to the ice was enough to generate huge interest in the NHL. After a long lockout, fans returned to the NHL in a big way and on Sunday following his (second) Detroit Winter Classic announcement, Gary Bettman pointed out that every basic measurable metric for fan interest is strong. The league is playing at a 97 percent capacity, attendance-wise. Television ratings in Canada and the U.S. are up -- with every regional television partner but one showing increased ratings. And some of the numbers are pretty impressive, as highlighted by NHL COO John Collins.

"Some markets, they're record ratings. The Chicago Blackhawks -- their regional ratings are approaching the Michael Jordan Bulls ratings," Collins said. "In a lot of markets where you have a hockey team and a basketball team, hockey is out-rating. In Boston and Philadelphia -- there's some big markets where that's the case."

The league almost doubled its subscriptions to NHL GameCenter Live, which allows fans to stream games live over the Internet. It came with a big discount because of the shortened season, but Collins said there's close to 250,000 subscribers this season.

All this, just by turning on the lights and signing a new CBA.

"There's been a lot of speculation over the last year about what the fan reaction would be. It's nothing we ever take for granted. I do think for our sport and in all sports, fans understand there's a reality of what modern day sports have to go through," Bettman said. "I think the recognition of the fact that we're in a position to move forward and [another CBA negotiation] isn't something anybody has to worry about for a decade enabled our fans to come back and reconnect with the game in spectacular fashion."

The challenge becomes maintaining that excitement and returning to pre-lockout revenue growth next season when there isn't a 48-game playoff race played in a condensed schedule. Part of the on-ice success that has happened this season can be attributed to the pent-up demand for hockey and the intense parity that comes in a three-point system during a short season.

Next season, it's a return to status quo and with that comes the potential for a leveling off of fan interest.

That's the challenge Collins is taking on right now.

He's the guy who has grown the Winter Classic into a money-generating hockey holiday and has hopes of the NHL playoffs one day having the casual sports appeal of college basketball's March Madness. Televising all the playoff games nationally last season was a start down that road.

On Sunday morning, he shared a bit of what his game plan looks like. He hinted strongly at the possibility of multiple U.S. outdoor games next season and there already are rumors circulating that there will be an outdoor game at Dodger Stadium during Hockey Day in America, although an NHL source said it's not a done deal yet.

The league is definitely eager to return an outdoor game to cities in which there already has been a game played, opening up another outdoor event in Chicago, Boston and Pittsburgh following the huge success of the Winter Classic in those cities.

There's definitely risk there. Collins understands that diluting the popularity of a Winter Classic is a possibility, but there's also the possibility that a second game doesn't match the success of the first. Then comes the criticism.

Take Boston, for example.

How do you top the 2010 Winter Classic at Fenway, when the Boston Bruins became the first home team to win by beating the Flyers in overtime? It was an incredible moment, impossible to duplicate if the NHL decides to circle back to Fenway at some point.

"We set the bar pretty high on all these. If you're going into a market that's had [a Winter Classic], the bar is high," Collins said. "If you're going into a market that hasn't had it ... they've seen it, they've heard about it and they want to experience. The bar is possibly even higher for them."

And outdoor games have become increasingly more common since 2010, with Fenway Park hosting outdoor games regularly during its Frozen Fenway event. The novelty isn't what it was.

The league is betting that the huge demand for outdoor games in local markets will more than make up for any national fatigue surrounding outdoor hockey games. If an outdoor game played during Hockey Day in America doesn't draw Winter Classic numbers nationally, that's OK if the local impact remains what it is now -- financially and in exposing the game to new fans.

The outdoor expansion is the local push and Collins is hedging that bet with another strategy -- international growth.

The league is meeting this week with the NHLPA, IOC and IIHF to work through the final details of getting the NHL players into the 2014 Winter Olympic games in Sochi. Bettman said the meetings should give all sides a clear indication as to how close they are to finding an agreement. The NHLPA's Mathieu Schneider sounded fairly optimistic.

"Obviously players want to go. Guys want to be there," he said. "That's no secret, but they also want their families to be a part of it. That's part of being in the village and the whole Olympic experience. It's another great event that guys want to be a part of. I'm optimistic we'll get something done."

But Collins' vision goes well beyond the Olympics and the Premier Games. He has his eyes on rekindling the World Cup, which sounds as though it's all but a certainty to return. Canada won the last World Cup in 2004 and one of USA Hockey's best moments came in 1996 when Team USA won twice in Montreal to beat Team Canada in the final, behind an MVP performance from Mike Richter.

"That's definitely something that has to be committed to," Collins said. "That's something definitely part of the plan we're talking about."

He's also intrigued by the idea of a Champions League, featuring games between the NHL's and Europe's best teams.

"We love the idea of the power of the team competition," he said. "Maybe we bring NHL teams over to play the best teams in Europe. How do we stage stage that? That's definitely something we're looking at."

There were rumors that the NHL may lose Collins during the lockout, but it's clear he's energized by the prospect of long-term labor peace and the ability that gives him to creatively grow the game outside the core regular season and playoffs.

Outdoor expansion may end up being just the start of that plan.

Coyotes generating interest

It's hard to take any optimism about the Phoenix Coyotes sale too seriously. It's Bettman's job to put a positive spin on an ugly situation and as Atlanta fans are quick point out, he said the Thrashers weren't going anywhere. Until they were.

But as the clock ticks on finding a buyer in Phoenix, Bettman said interest from potential new owners is stronger than at any point in the process.

"There seems to be now, in the calm of the moment, a lot more interest than we've ever seen," Bettman said.

Why is that? Hockey's strong return after the lockout certainly doesn't hurt. Stronger revenue sharing along with a long-term CBA help too.

"There were a lot of things that happened, some were within our control, some were beyond our control, whether or not it was third-party intervention, whether or not it was the work stoppage, whether or not it was a deal that went bad for a variety of reasons," Bettman said. "The fact of the matter is there seems to be more interest at this particular point in time than we've seen throughout the process."

Bettman said that they'll approach the city of Glendale once there's a framework of a deal lined up and declined to share a timeline on when that might happen. At this point, he said the league isn't considering relocation.

He did comment on the possibility of Seattle as a hockey market, but made sure to point out he was doing so only because I asked, not because it's being looked into as a possibility.

"The research I've seen tells me that it would be a very strong hockey market. I haven't looked at it in detail, it's all anecdotal and third hand," he said. "Obviously, if there were a team in Seattle that might foster a pretty decent rivalry with the northern neighbor, namely Vancouver."