LOS ANGELES — Not even two years after the resolution of a lockout that many predicted would cripple the NHL, commissioner Gary Bettman sat at the podium before the start of the Stanley Cup Final and said the league has enjoyed the most successful season in its history.
To his credit, he didn’t say, “I told you so.”
Instead, he called 2013-14 a “truly remarkable” season for the NHL, while referencing:
— The record attendance and TV viewership numbers.
— The successful series of outdoor games, all sold out.
— The “overwhelmingly positive” reception to the new playoff format.
— The “unparalleled competitive balance” of a league that hasn’t had a repeat champion since 1998, and won’t again this year.
— The dramatic rise in franchise values, largely a function of skyrocketing rights fees for live sports, on which the NHL capitalized this season.
— The “great business opportunity” that a reborn World Cup presents, even if the idea isn’t “fully baked” and still needs to be hashed out with the NHLPA. (On the subject of the Olympics and whether the NHL would continue to participate in the Games, he said no decision had been made, and to this point, not much thought had been put into it.)
— The continuing interest from investors in pursuit of expansion teams, even if the NHL isn’t quite ready to add teams yet.
Heck, Bettman even took one of the biggest challenges facing the NHL — head injuries — and spun it into a positive, noting that concussions were down this season, a development he believed was a “function of the concussion protocols working.”
While he admitted there was still work to be done in that area — in fact, he said teams had been disciplined behind the scenes for violating the protocols — he shifted much of the responsibility for the players’ safety onto the players themselves, saying that players must continue to learn that it’s “okay to say you’re suffering from concussion symptoms.” Otherwise, it’s “pretty difficult” to tell if they’re faking in order to stay in the game.
To be sure, Bettman will continue to face criticism over concussions and how seriously the NHL treats the health of its players. The positive spin he put on the subject today will be seen by many as just that — spin.
But compared to years past, that criticism will seem like nothing. Remember, the NHL’s “truly remarkable” season still has at least four games left, and with a Stanley Cup Final match-up between teams from the “two biggest cities,” the good news seems bound to keep coming for the commish.