Saving the Edmonton Oilers, Hartford Whalers and Winnipeg Jets is still a top priority for the NHL. And the league doesn't plan any more expansion until there are "26 healthy franchises," commissioner Gary Bettman said Sunday.
Bettman made the comment at an informal meeting with the media attending the Stanley Cup finals between the New York Rangers and Vancouver Canucks.Bettman acknowledged that those three franchises were still the most troubled.
"We'd like to get Edmonton put to bed and Hartford put to bed and make sure we have 26 healthy franchises," Bettman said. "I think we're closer."
Asked if Winnipeg could be put in the "unhealthy" category, Bettman said: "Maybe unhealthy is a stretch. The real issue in Winnipeg is whether they build a new building."
If they don't, then it's a problem, Bettman said, and the team might have to move.
But he added that the league was doing all things possible to keep those teams in the same cities.
"Hartford, Winnipeg and Edmonton have played to sellouts in the past," Bettman said, adding that there was no reason to think they couldn't in the future.
Bettman was asked about the demand for NHL teams in other markets, particularly in Atlanta where broadcast mogul Ted Turner is pitching for a team.
"Turner's interest is flattering to hockey," Bettman said, "but I think it's premature to focus on expansion."
Nor would the NHL like moving financially troubled teams such as the Whalers or Oilers into new markets.
"If there's a demand for us in other markets, you don't satisfy that by abandoning old markets," Bettman said.
Bettman also knocked down reports that he wanted to move most of the teams out of Canada into the larger U.S. market, with the exception of the Montreal Canadiens and Toronto Maple Leafs.
"There's no truth to that," Bettman said. "I would just like to have eight healthy franchises in Canada."
Bettman also touched on such subjects as the collective bargaining agreement, the officiating and television in his wide-ranging discussion.
The players and the league have been without a contract since last September and Bettman said he did not want a repeat of the 10-day strike that halted the 1992 season.
While Bettman for the most part refused to talk about specific issues, he did say the league had not demanded a salary cap similar to the NBA's at this point.
"We just want a contract that's fair to owners and players," Bettman said.
Bettman also said the league was continuing to investigate ways to improve officiating. The on-ice officials have come under criticism in the past year.
"I've identified that as a top priority since Day One," said Bettman, who has been in office neary 11/2 years. "It's not a problem with the rule book. It's the inconsistency we have to straighten out."
Bettman also said the NHL was happy with television coverage by the sports cable network ESPN and that the league would "work toward increasing exposure on network."