Bettman: NHL 'healthy' in second post-lockout season

RALEIGH, N.C. -- The NHL is growing and heading in the right
direction as it opens its second post-lockout season, commissioner
Gary Bettman said Wednesday night.

"Last year, everybody focused on the relaunch: How would we
come back?" Bettman said during the Buffalo Sabres' 3-2 shootout
win over the Stanley Cup champion Carolina Hurricanes. "We're now
finally in position where we don't have to be looking back at the
work stoppage or anything having to do with it.

"We've got a healthy game. We've got teams whose economics are
now sound. We've got the best competitive balance we've had. The
game on the ice is terrific. So now we can be forward looking and
that's a great opportunity for us. We haven't been in that position
for a very long time."

Bettman was back in the RBC Center for the second time in less
than four months. He was there for the Hurricanes' last game,
appearing on the ice afterward to hand captain Rod Brind'Amour the
Cup after Carolina beat Edmonton 3-1 in Game 7 of the finals on
June 19.

He spoke with reporters after the first period Wednesday,
touting the league's growth since resolving a labor dispute between
the NHL and the players' association that wiped out the entire
2004-05 season. The league re-emerged last year with rule changes
that sought to eliminate the defensive clutching and grabbing that
bogged down pre-lockout scoring.

The league also implemented a salary cap, which it increased to
$44 million -- $5 million more per team over last season -- after
revenues were higher than expected.

The Hurricanes and Sabres were among the top beneficiaries of
the changes. Carolina had missed the playoffs for two straight
seasons before winning the Cup, while Buffalo had missed the
playoffs for three seasons before losing to Carolina in Game 7 of
the Eastern Conference finals.

Bettman said the league's first focus after the lockout was
bringing fans back to the game. Now it includes growing the game by
improving television ratings, he said.

"We kind of think that we've gotten to a good position -- the
best we've been in -- and we can improve from here," Bettman said.
"These things don't change overnight, but we do like the direction
that we're heading."