Playoffs with full buildings is ‘return to normalcy’ for NHL

NEW YORK — Watching games in empty arenas in the quarantined bubbles during the 2020 playoffs, the 2021 season and even in Canada earlier this year gave Gary Bettman even more of an appreciation for what NHL hockey is like in front of a sellout crowd.

“Our players get an extraordinary amount of energy and excitement form our fans and our full buildings,” the longtime commissioner said.

The Tampa Bay Lightning celebrated their second of back-to-back Stanley Cup championships at home last summer in the middle of a packed house, but that was far from the norm everywhere. Their games in Montreal during that final came in front of a paltry crowd of 3,500 at Bell Centre, which is usually a raucous arena known for the best atmosphere in the league.

There won’t be playoff hockey there this spring, but in three other Canadian cities and 13 in the U.S., every building is expected to be full this time of year for the first time since 2019. After navigating the twists and turns of the pandemic, the NHL is back to pre-COVID-19 business levels, with the return to regular playoffs being a big reason for the league’s furious comeback.

“This is the ultimate return to normalcy,” Bettman said. “To have our full buildings and exciting games, what more could we ask for? Especially after what we’ve all been through the last two years.”

The NHL projected $5.2 billion in revenue at its annual Board of Governors meeting in December, with the salary cap set to rise $1 million next season after remaining flat since 2020. Even after the surge of the omicron variant of the coronavirus forced teams north of the U.S.-Canada border to play with no fans or limited attendance, the league is on pace to surpass the $5 billion mark.

“Revenue wise, we did fine this year,” Bettman said. “We did basically what we were projecting. The impact of having buildings empty in Canada for some period of time had an impact — material for those clubs — but in terms of the $5-plus billion were going to do, it was only a very, very small part of that.”

Even before the Cup is handed out before the end of June, that’s a big win, especially after losing out on $3.6 billion when the 2019-20 season was cut short and operating in a deficit to play a shortened, 56-game season in 2021.

While Bettman often points out that ticket sales and other gate-related income makes up less than 50% of the league’s business, the pandemic spurred more creativity in unearthing extra revenue sources. Ads were added to players’ helmets, jersey patches are coming next season and this is the first of seven-year U.S. media rights deals with ESPN and Turner Sports.

“More people are consuming the game,” said Bettman, who added TV ratings are up 18% and streaming numbers even more than that. “We’re at a point where people want what they want when they want it how they want it and that’s what we’re delivering, and that was what the underpinning of our new media deals in the U.S. were because we believed without chopping and dicing it too much, we wanted there to be access to our games in more places but easy to find.”

In person, there have been hiccups along the way to completing 1,312 games — the longest regular season in NHL history.

A total of 106 games were rescheduled for reasons ranging from the virus to weather and attendance limits in Canada. Dozens of games that would have been played in cold, empty arenas the middle of winter were pushed into the window created by bowing out of the Beijing Olympics and some beyond that to the point government officials greenlighted fans at full capacity.

When the Maple Leafs host the Lightning and the Oilers host the Los Angeles Kings on Monday night, they will be the first playoff games in Canada with full arenas since 2019. Leafs star and NHL leading goal-scorer Auston Matthews called the return of fans at full capacity “something that we’re all looking forward to.”

Perhaps it’s fitting Toronto and Edmonton are ushering back sellout crowds after those cities hosted the 2020 bubble playoffs. The 2022 postseason should be the furthest thing from those dark days, though the league is keeping an eye on potential border and virus issues that could crop up without warning.

Getting in a full, 82-game season for all 32 teams now after the addition of the Seattle Kraken is cause for celebration around the NHL, which is on track to finish the playoffs before July 1.

“All of that says we’re back,” Bettman said. “And it’s great to have our fans back. It’s great to have our game on a more normal schedule. A little bit later than usual, but we’ll fix that next year.”

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    LA Kings put goaltender Cal Petersen on waivers

    Perry Nelson-USA TODAY Sports
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    LOS ANGELES — The Los Angeles Kings put goaltender Cal Petersen on waivers, a surprising move for a player once considered the successor in net to two-time Stanley Cup winner Jonathan Quick.

    Petersen, 28, went on waivers the day after allowing four goals on 16 shots in relief of Quick during a 9-8 overtime loss to the Seattle Kraken. Quick was pulled after giving up five goals on 14 shots.

    Only one NHL goalie has a save percentage lower than Petersen’s .868 this season, Elvis Merzlikins of the Columbus Blue Jackets with .864. Petersen is 5-3-2 in 10 games with a 3.75 goals-against average in his third full season with the Kings and fifth overall.

    L.A. signed Petersen to a three-year, $15 million contract in September 2021, and he figured to take the starting job from Quick, who turns 37 in January and is set to be a free agent after the season. Petersen has two years left on that deal after this one at an annual salary cap hit of $5 million.

    Penguins’ Kris Letang out indefinitely after 2nd stroke

    Kris Letang Penguins
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    PITTSBURGH — Kris Letang plays hockey with a grace and inexhaustible fluidity seemingly impervious to the rigors of spending nearly half his life in the NHL.

    For the second time in less than a decade, however, a major health scare has brought Letang’s career to a halt.

    The 35-year-old Letang is out indefinitely after suffering a stroke for a second time. Letang reported feeling ill and was taken to the hospital, where tests confirmed the stroke.

    While general manager Ron Hextall said Wednesday this stroke doesn’t appear to be as serious as the one Letang sustained in 2014, the Penguins will have to find a way forward at least in the short term without one of their franchise pillars.

    “I am fortunate to know my body well enough to recognize when something isn’t right,” Letang said in a release. “While it is difficult to navigate this issue publicly, I am hopeful it can raise awareness. … I am optimistic that I will be back on the ice soon.”

    The three-time Stanley Cup champion missed more than two months in 2014 after a stroke, which doctors determined was caused by a small hole in the wall of his heart. He spent Monday feeling off and told team trainers he was dealing with what Hextall described as a migraine headache.

    Penguins team physician Dr. Dhamesh Vyas recommended Letang go to the hospital, where tests confirmed the stroke.

    “He didn’t know (he had a stroke),” Hextall said. “He just knew something wasn’t right.”

    Letang is continuing to undergo tests but felt well enough on Tuesday to be at the arena for Pittsburgh’s 3-2 overtime loss to Carolina. He spent the second period chatting with Hextall then addressed his teammates in the locker room afterward in an effort to help allay their concerns.

    “I think it was important for Kris to be there because his teammates got to see him in good spirits and that he’s doing well,” Penguins coach Mike Sullivan said.

    Sullivan added initial test results on Letang have been “very encouraging.” Letang will continue to undergo testing throughout the week, though he felt good enough in the aftermath to ask Sullivan and Hextall if he could skate, an activity that is off the table for now.

    Hextall said he “couldn’t even guess” how long the Penguins may be without the married father of two, adding hockey is low on the team’s list of concerns about a player who, along with Sidney Crosby and Evgeni Malkin, has helped the franchise to three Stanley Cups during his 17-year career.

    “First and foremost this is about the person and I told Tanger about that last night,” Hextall said. “This is Kris Letang, the father and family guy, the Pittsburgh Penguins, that’s second.”

    Letang, a six-time All-Star, has been one of the most durable players in the NHL. His 662 career points (145 goals, 517 assists) are a franchise record for a defenseman. He’s averaged well over 24 minutes of playing time over the course of his career, a number that’s ticked above 25 minutes per game seven times in eight-plus seasons since he returned from the initial stroke.

    The Penguins felt so confident in Letang’s durability that they signed him to a six-year contract over the summer rather than let him test free agency for the first time.

    “The level of hockey he’s played for as long as he’s played is absolutely incredible,” Hextall said. “The level he’s continued to play at at his age, the type of shape he’s in … he’s a warrior.”

    Letang has one goal and 11 assists in 21 games so far this season for Pittsburgh, which hosts Vegas on Thursday night. The Penguins are pretty deep along the blue line, but Sullivan knows he can’t try to replace Letang with any one player.

    “It’s not anything we haven’t been faced with in the past and the reality is we have what we have, and we’ll figure it out,” Sullivan said, adding “it’ll be by committee, as it usually is when you replace a player of that stature.”

    Ovechkin tops Gretzky for most road goals, Capitals beat Canucks

    Bob Frid-USA TODAY Sports
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    VANCOUVER, British Columbia – Alex Ovechkin scored twice, passing Wayne Gretzky for the most road goals in NHL history, and the Washington Capitals beat the Vancouver Canucks 5-1 on Tuesday night.

    Ovechkin has scored 403 of his 793 career goals away from home. Gretzky holds the overall record with 894.

    “It’s always nice when you beat the Great One,” Ovechkin said. “It doesn’t matter what kind of milestone it is. It’s history.”

    Anthony Mantha added a goal and an assist for the Capitals (10-11-3). John Carlson and Martin Fehervary also scored, and Darcy Kuemper stopped 31 shots.

    Nils Hoglander scored for the Canucks (9-11-3), who had won three in a row. Spencer Martin made 23 saves.

    “Spencer’s been great for us. He’s probably a bit like the other players tonight. They weren’t ready to play and it showed on the scoreboard,” Vancouver coach Bruce Boudreau said.

    The 37-year-old Ovechkin nearly netted a hat trick when Vancouver pulled Martin for an extra skater with just over six minutes left, but his rocket of a shot skimmed the outside of the post.

    “I think he has 13 goals this year and I want to say like eight or nine have been like a new record. So it’s been cool,” Washington center Dylan Strome said. “Any time you pass Wayne Gretzky in anything, it deserves a standing ovation, which he got.”

    Fehervary was the one who sealed it, flipping the puck high into the Canucks zone and into the empty net at 15:57 of the third period.

    Ovechkin topped Gretzky 11:52 into the first, firing a one-timer from the left circle past Martin to give the Capitals a 2-0 lead with his 13th goal of the season.

    “On his second goal, it looks like, `Oh, maybe (Martin) should have had it.’ But I’ve seen (Ovechkin) score 100 goals like that,” said Boudreau, who coached the Capitals from 2007-11. “He’s got a shot that finds its way in.”

    The star forward from Russia got his first of the night 5:35 in, taking the puck off the stick of Vancouver defenseman Quinn Hughes near the net and batting in a quick shot.

    “It could have been 6-1 after the first period, quite frankly, with the amount of chances (Washington) had,” Boudreau said.

    It was Ovechkin’s 135th game-opening goal, tying Jaromir Jagr for the most in NHL history.

    “(Ovechkin) was really good in the first and I thought we were really good in the first so it was nice to get out and get a jump like that,” Capitals coach Peter Laviolette said. “He certainly led. We knew we needed to have a good first period, have a good game, and you need your best players to do that.”

    Carlson scored the lone goal of the second, chipping in a loose puck from the low hash marks at 18:47 to give Washington a 4-1 cushion.

    “It’s frustrating. Because when you lose games, it should never be about your compete level and battle level,” Canucks center J.T. Miller said. “It’s frustrating because they didn’t out-skill us today, they didn’t out-system us. They literally just outbattled us and created their own chances.”

    NOTES: Washington’s Lars Eller got his 200th career assist. … Miller had an assist, extending his point streak to nine games (four goals, seven assists). … The Capitals swept the two-game season series. … Vancouver assigned winger Vasily Podkolzin and defenseman Jack Rathbone to the Abbotsford Canucks on Monday, then recalled forward Phillip Di Giuseppe from the American Hockey League club on Tuesday.

    UP NEXT

    Washington: At Seattle on Thursday in the second of a five-game trip.

    Vancouver: Host Florida on Thursday in the second of a four-game homestand.

    Deal for Coyotes’ proposed arena approved by Tempe council

    David Kirouac-USA TODAY Sports
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    TEMPE, Ariz. — The Tempe City Council has unanimously approved a proposal for a new Arizona Coyotes arena and entertainment district, clearing the way for a public vote on the project next year.

    The City Council approved the proposal 7-0 after a lengthy meeting that included NHL Commissioner Gary Bettman.

    The $2.1 billion project would include a 16,000-seat arena, practice rink, 1,600 apartments, two hotels and a theater. Approval of the project was the final step before it goes to referendum on May 16.

    The team is currently playing at Arizona State’s 5,000-seat Mullett Arena, by far the NHL’s smallest arena.

    The Coyotes have been searching for a permanent home since the city of Glendale pulled out of a multimillion-dollar lease at Gila River Arena. Arizona had been playing on an annual lease until Glendale said it would not be renewed for the 2022-23 season.