The NHL's board of governors wrapped up two days of meetings in Pebble Beach, Calif., Tuesday, with the focus shifting mostly to safety and discipline issues, two topics that keep the league in the news, for better or for worse.
On the same day he suspended Toronto Maple Leafs defenceman Dion Phaneuf for two games, NHL disciplinary chief Brendan Shanahan delivered a report to the board, essentially echoing comments made by commissioner Gary Bettman three weeks ago – that of the more than 50,000 hits the league's statisticians record every year, fewer than 100 require review.
Bettman reiterated his support for Shanahan's work in what is essentially a thankless job – trying to find consistency in applying discipline, when no two plays are exactly alike – and said that he and the board have "confidence" the work he's doing to change the NHL's often hidebound culture and codes.
"We think we've made positive, dramatic steps forward," said Bettman, noting that the NHL is the only professional sports league that has such a transparent disciplinary process. "If you study the videos he [Shanahan] has put online, the specific instances where supplemental discipline is imposed or the more general tapes he's put online explaining what the standards of play are now, people should take a great deal of comfort that we're being extraordinarily proactive."
It was a point reiterated by Nashville Predators' general manager David Poile, who told the Canadian Press: "I mean, look where we were. I've been around for a long time and some of the stuff that happened in the so-called old days, to where we are now, it's so much better for the players and so much better for the game."
Much of the day was spent updating the board on logistics relating to the NHL's participation in the 2014 Sochi Winter Olympics and ongoing talks with the players' association about possibly reviving the World Cup, perhaps as early as 2016. Bettman indicated that no decision about the 2018 Olympics in South Korea would be made until after the league evaluates the Sochi experience; and that ultimately, NHL participation may hinge on where it goes next with its international initiatives.
The belief is that the NHL would prefer to drop out of the Olympics, where they have limited input, and instead deal with the players' collective appetite for a best-on-best competition with a World Cup, where they incidentally could control all the parameters and bank all the profits.
The financial issues were mostly covered on the meeting's opening day, with Bettman projecting a salary cap in the $71-million (U.S.) range for the 2014-15 season, which would be the highest in history.
The NHL cap for 2013-14 dropped to $64.3-million from $70.2-million, largely because the lockout cost the league a lot of business in 2012-13. However, the league's financial fortunes have bounced back in a meaningful way and are set to improve, thanks to a lucrative new $5.2-billion television deal with Rogers Communications in the last week of November, an agreement that was approved by the board Monday.
Bettman's position on expansion hasn't changed either. The NHL is "listening" to overtures from interested parties, but not actively pursuing expansion as an option, he said.
There is a sense the league will eventually get to 32 teams to balance the two conferences and Seattle has long been a destination of choice for the league because of how it fits into Bettman's vision of a U.S. geographical "footprint."
"My my, how far we've come since the summer, when all the articles and speculation were about all these franchises that were supposedly in trouble, which we never believed were," Bettman said. "The franchises have never been stronger. So we went from relocation in your view and distress to now we should be expanding. Everybody needs to slow down. We don't operate like that. Everything in due course. If, in fact, there's a due course to pursue."
Among other pieces of business discussed, deputy commissioner Bill Daly also briefed the board on the status of a lawsuit filed against the league by a group of players, which claims they were not informed of the concussion risks they faced during their playing days. It mirrors a similar suit that former NFL players filed against the league and was ultimately settled.
Publicly, the NHL's position is that it took concussion awareness more seriously sooner than any other professional sports league by introducing a concussion study group back in 1997 headed by then former Calgary Flames' doctor Winne Meeuwisse, now one of the leading figures in the field.
Daly made the point that the NHL insisted its concussion protocols be part of the medical guidelines in place for Sochi and the IIHF agreed.
With files from The Canadian Press
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