The NHL Is Back

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Illustration by John Ritter

It must be killing Gary Bettman to keep so much good news on ice. The National Hockey League is Bettman's business, and business is the best it has been since he became its commissioner nearly 20 years ago. Thanks to ferocious competition inside the rink and the biggest broadcasting commitment in league history, more Americans are debating the finer points of penalty kills and two-line passes than ever.

But Bettman can't skate a victory lap. Right after the Stanley Cup is awarded in a couple weeks, the NHL will square off in a brawl of its own. For the first time since ending the disastrous lockout that froze the 2004–05 season, the 30 league owners will head into negotiations with players, who are led by the fearsome enforcer Donald Fehr, to thrash out a collective-bargaining agreement. As much as Bettman might like to celebrate, he will have to downplay the league's success as a negotiating posture.

Last time around, the NHL Players Association made concessions, including a relatively low ceiling on salaries. With the league much improved, Fehr, who successfully fought such restrictions when he represented Major League Baseball players in their clash with owners in the mid-1990s, will undoubtedly seek to raise the salary cap, if not eradicate it.

Hockey's recent success gives him plenty to target. Revenue has surged to $3.2 billion from $2 billion in 2003, the year before the lockout. Viewership is up, too. On NBC, NBC Sports Network, and CNBC—all controlled by cable operator Comcast—more than 39 million viewers have tuned in to the playoffs, up 23 percent from last year, according to Nielsen.

Though a handful of the league's newer (Carolina Hurricanes) and even older teams (New York Islanders) are struggling, some of the NHL's financial laggards have gotten their skates on. To wit: the Phoenix Coyotes, which went bankrupt two years ago, went to the Western Conference finals and will soon land a new owner. "There's an increased awareness and buzz across the game," Bettman said, edging as close as he can to a boast. But make no mistake: it won't be long before the gloves come off.