SUNRISE, Fla., Feb. 1 (UPI) -- NHL Commisioner Gary Bettman, with the fates of the Buffalo Sabres and Ottawa Senators remaining uncertain, declared his fundamental opposition Saturday to the elimination or relocation of either franchise.
Delivering his annual state of the game address on the eve of the 53rd NHL All-Star Game, Bettman provided no new details regarding the sale of either franchise. But he sounded pessimistic when pressed for the status of Buffalo businessman Mark Hamister's bid to buy the Sabres.
The commissioner refused to rule out another extension of Hamister's window of exclusivity to complete his purchase. But Bettman expressed concern over the proposal because it relies on "public sector support which may not be there."
"If we don't think this bid ultimately can close ... we may seek out other alternatives," he said.
Asked whether Rochester billionaire Tom Golisano could re-enter the picture, Bettman noted that Golisano's initial proposal also included "comparable public sector support."
The commissioner would not comment on reports that Toronto billionaire Eugene Melnyk is interested in buying the Senators, saying only, "I am aware of who he is and that he's a very substantial person."
Bettman admitted the business aspect of hockey has been "a little too much in focus" and hoped All-Star Weekend would enable the sport to "focus on good stuff." But economic issues dominated his hour-long session with the media.
With the league about to enter the final year of a collective bargaining agreement that Bettman insists must be restructured, the commissioner was asked if contraction was one solution under consideration.
"I don't believe in contraction," he replied. "Contraction doesn't hold any interest to me. I believe we should do everything we can to keep franchises stable where they are. I don't see long-term how contraction would benefit us at all. Each one of our franchises, under the right circumstances, can be successful. ... There is no interest in relocation or losing franchises."
Bettman denied he is campaigning to get the NHL Players Association to return to the bargaining table in advance of the expiration of the CBA following the 2003-04 season.
"We're not looking to send any messages, we're just dealing with the reality that exists," he said.
But the commissioner said the league "would be ready in five minutes" should the union agree to begin negotiations.
In other issues, Bettman revealed the NHL has no plans to return statistics like hits and blocked shots to official box scores. An independent arbitrator last month sided with the NHLPA and ordered the league to restore the statistics.
While the NHL will furnish them to the union, the statistics will not be made available to the public.
The commissioner said the league has no plans to expand the number of teams that qualify for the playoffs from the current 16.
Colin Campbel, NHL executive vice president and director of hockey operations, revealed the league will meet next week with general managers in an attempt to reduce incidences of players trying to draw penalties by "embellishing."
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