Commissioner meets with Davis, Waxman

WASHINGTON -- NHL commissioner Gary Bettman's celebration of the first month of the season included a meeting Friday with congressmen leading the push for steroids legislation.

After delivering what amounted to a rosy state-of-the-sport speech at the National Press Club -- goals, attendance and TV ratings are up while fighting is down in the NHL's first post-lockout month -- and before catching a game, Bettman went to Capitol Hill. He met with Reps. Tom Davis, R-Va., and Henry Waxman, D-Calif., for a half-hour, Davis spokesman Rob White said.

"We had a candid dialogue," Bettman told The Associated Press before watching the Washington Capitals host the Atlanta Thrashers. "We made sure the lines of communications were open. ... If Congress, because of what's going on in some other sports, thinks we need to do more, then we'll work with Congress."

According to White, Bettman reiterated to Government Reform Committee chairman Davis and ranking Democrat Waxman criticisms he's made of House and Senate bills that would standardize drug-testing and punishment in U.S. pro sports.

"We don't think performance-enhancing drugs is much of an issue" for the NHL, Bettman said at the National Press Club. "If you look at the history of hockey players throughout the world being tested ... you rarely ever get a positive test, and if you do, it's probably because it's been prescribed for therapeutic use. So we don't think, unlike possibly some of the other sports, that this is an issue."

He added that Congress should tailor its requirements for individual sports and that penalties based on the Olympic model -- with a two-year ban for a first steroids offense and a lifetime ban for a second -- are too harsh.

The NHL didn't test for performance-enhancing drugs under its old labor agreement; the new deal, which ended the dispute that wiped out the 2004-05 season, instituted testing and penalties, including a 20-game suspension for a first offense.

"As Chairman Davis has repeatedly said, there is a strong desire among members of Congress to get something done. Our preference would be for the leagues to take the initiative, but if not, we will certainly act -- and the NHL will be included," White wrote in an e-mail to The Associated Press.

"We find it hard to understand why hockey continues to insist there is no problem in their sport, when they have no real testing regimen to back that up. If there is no problem, then what's the problem with doing more testing?" the e-mail said.

This was Bettman's first face-to-face meeting with Davis and Waxman, White said. The lawmakers have had earlier meetings with Major League Baseball commissioner Bud Selig, NFL commissioner Paul Tagliabue and NBA commissioner David Stern.

In his National Press Club appearance, Bettman proudly proclaimed the NHL has "reinvented itself."

The game, Bettman said, "has been refreshed and reinvigorated by a new economic system, better competitive balance and some new rules ... that allow the skills of our players to dominate."

Bettman cited several statistics: Scoring is up 30 percent, fighting is down about 40 percent, attendance in October was the highest ever for that month and TV ratings are up on U.S. regional cable channels, plus Canada's CBC and TSN networks.

On other topics, Bettman said:

  • The new shootout format is for the regular season only; playoff ties will continue to be broken by sudden-death overtime.

  • The league is looking into creating new uniforms that would keep players cooler and make them look sleeker.

  • Fewer penalties are being called as players adjust to the new rules meant to cut down on clutching and grabbing of puck carriers.