NEWARK, N.J. - Commissioner Gary Bettman says the NHL is close to beginning labour talks with the NHL Players' Association.
"The goal obviously is to reach a collective bargaining agreement that can take the game and the business to even higher levels that have been reached over the past seven season," Bettman told a news conference Wednesday evening.
"I understand the union is now prepared to begin talks and we are in the process of trying to set up dates," he added. "It remains my hope that constructive negotiations can begin soon and culminate quickly so that attention can remain where it belongs and where everybody wants it to remain—and that is on the game."
Bettman said he expects "in the next few weeks" they will begin to "set the table of what we each might want to be talking about."
He dismissed speculation that the talks may not prevent a labour dispute—noting the process hasn't even started yet.
"Time will tell how this all sorts out. I'm hopeful that it sorts out easily because labour peace is preferable to the alternative," he said.
Bettman also said he believes the league's department of player safety, headed by Brendan Shanahan, "does appear to be working."
While not citing exact figures, the commissioner says the league experienced a "modest decline" in concussions during the 2011-12 regular season and playoffs.
"The first time in three years that this figure has declined," he said.
"While there remains work to be done, it's fair to say we are pleased with the progress and that player behaviour is beginning to change. We have seen countless examples this season in which players have altered their path to a hit or to a play.
"And the fact is with over 50,000 hits in a season, we're in the low double-digits of the ones we will continue to work to get out of the game."
Bettman said Shanahan and his team are doing "a terrific job in what is perhaps the most difficult and thankless job that we have."
In other matters discussed at his pre-game news conference, Bettman said:
—The league garnered a record US$3.3 billion in revenue and played to some 21.5 million fans during the regular season.
—Greg Jamieson continues his efforts to purchase the Phoenix Coyotes, both on putting his equity package together and working with the city of Glendale on a building management deal. A city vote next week on the management agreement may pave the way for the equity side of the equation, Bettman said. Asked if the Coyotes would definitely be in Phoenix next season, the commissioner said: "I can't say anything with 100 per cent certainty. So I think that the likelihood is, based on everything we know today, that the process should conclude successfully but it's not something that I'm in a position to guarantee." He did acknowledge there is no Plan B, however, saying the hope was that the Jamieson takeover would work.
—New Jersey is working on refinancing its debt and raising equity and is "fairly confident" it can be completed in the next few weeks.
—A report that the Los Angeles Kings are for sale is untrue.
—Team officials have not shown an interest in shifting the final to a 2-3-2 series rather than the current 2-2-1-1-1.
—The benefits of competing in the Olympics have to be balanced against the impact being at the Games have has on the league. He called the Olympics a "joint decision that we (the NHL and NHLPA) need to do in the best interest of the game and the players."
—A decision on the appeal by Phoenix forward Raffi Torres will be delivered "in the not too distant future."
—He denied there was any divide in the relationship with the league and Wayne Gretzky. "I think when Wayne is more desirous or more comfortable being more involved, I think that's great. He's an important icon of this game. ... Whatever he wants to do, I'm completely supportive."