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All smiles during commissioner's state of the league address

Gary Bettman said things are looking up for the NHL during his media conference Saturday.

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Gary Bettman said things are looking up for the NHL during his media conference Saturday.

ATLANTA – Anyone worried about an over-saturation of outdoor games needn’t be concerned, NHL commissioner Gary Bettman said Saturday in his annual state of the league address at the All-Star Game festivities.

“It’s not something we want to overdo,” Bettman said. “My anticipation is we will do another one. I can’t tell you where or when, but I assure you we’re not going to do too many. We want to keep them special because (the Jan. 1 outdoor game in Buffalo) was a very special day.”

The league’s board of governors met Saturday and unlike at last year’s All-Star Game when the owners spent most of the meeting sniping at each other over the unbalanced schedule, this year’s meeting produced only a plethora of happy talk. To hear Bettman talk about it, you’d never know that the NHL was considered a fringe sport in much of the United States.

Bettman’s address was peppered with the following optimistic thoughts: “We’ve come a long way since the loss of 2004-05. Franchises are much more stable from a business standpoint,” and, “Our competitive balance is nothing short of outstanding,” and “Our fans continue to support us in record numbers,” and, “The partnership between the league and the Players’ Association is showing the most constructive signs that I can recall.”

Not long after the meeting, NHLPA executive director Paul Kelly called the league out for not getting player approval for the league’s plans to open the 2008-09 regular season with two games between the Tampa Bay Lightning and New York Rangers in Prague and the Ottawa Senators and Pittsburgh Penguins in Stockholm. And when Bettman talked about the record attendance, he failed to mention that many of the franchises in the U.S. give away thousands of tickets per game and report bogus numbers. However, he did say that even in “apples to apples comparisons,” the league’s numbers are significantly up.

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Bettman said he’s not worried about the long-term deals that are being signed, particularly to players coming out of entry level contracts, but acknowledged teams that go that route are taking a very big gamble.

“My own view - but I don’t run a team - is that I would think shorter contracts are better in terms of flexibility because if your commitments are too long and too large and you didn’t make the right judgments that could severely impact your team’s ability to compete. It’s really going to come down to, and time will tell on this, whether or not these judgments turn out to be right for a particular player and a particular team.”

With respect to the Scott Niedermayer return after taking the first three months of the season off, Bettman said his was a special case, but was quick to acknowledge the league will be troubled if it happens with some regularity.

“(Niedermayer) obviously felt he needed some time off an I wouldn’t second guess that for a minute,” Bettman said. “If this were to become a trend, I would have concerns.”

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