Playoffs with full buildings are a ‘return to normal’ for the NHL | Radio WGN 720

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NEW YORK (AP) Watching games in empty arenas in the quarantined bubbles during the 2020 playoffs, the 2021 season and even in Canada earlier this year has given Gary Bettman an even greater appreciation for what it’s like NHL hockey in front of a sold out crowd.

“Our players are getting an extraordinary amount of energy and excitement from our fans and our packed buildings,” the longtime commissioner said.

The Tampa Bay Lightning celebrated their second straight Stanley Cup championship at home last summer amid a packed house, but it was far from the norm everywhere. Their games in Montreal in that final took place in front of a paltry crowd of 3,500 at the Bell Center, which is usually a loud arena known for the best atmosphere in the league.

There will be no playoff hockey this spring, but in three other Canadian cities and 13 in the United States, every building is expected to be full at this time of year for the first time since 2019. After crossing the In the midst of the pandemic, the NHL is back to pre-COVID-19 business levels, with the return to the regular playoffs being a major reason for the league’s furious comeback.

“It’s the ultimate return to normality,” Bettman said. “To have our buildings complete and our games exciting, what more could you ask for? Especially after what we’ve all been through for the past two years.

The NHL forecast revenue of $5.2 billion at its annual board of governors meeting in December, with the salary cap set to increase by $1 million next season after remaining flat since 2020. Even after the ramp-up of the omicron variant of the coronavirus, teams have been forced north of the US-Canada border to play without fans or with limited attendance, the league is on track to surpass the $5 billion mark.

“In terms of revenue, we’ve done well this year,” Bettman said. “We basically did what we planned. The impact of having empty buildings in Canada for a while had an impact – material for these clubs – but in terms of over $5 billion, that was just a very, very small part of it .

Even before the Cup is handed over before the end of June, it’s a big win, especially after losing $3.6 billion when the 2019-20 season was cut short and in deficit to play a shortened season. of 56 games in 2021. .

While Bettman often points out that ticket sales and other gate-related revenue account for less than 50% of league business, the pandemic has spurred more creativity in uncovering additional revenue streams. Advertisements have been added to players’ helmets, jersey patches are coming next season and this is the first seven-year US media rights deal with ESPN and Turner Sports.

“More people are consuming the game,” said Bettman, who added that TV ratings were up 18% and streaming numbers were even higher. “We’re at a point where people want what they want when they want it how they want it and that’s what we’re delivering, and that’s what was driving our new media deals in the United States. Because we believed in no cutting and dicing too much, we wanted there to be access to our games in more places but easy to find.

In person, there were hiccups along the way to completing 1,312 games – the longest regular season in NHL history.

A total of 106 games have been postponed for reasons ranging from the virus to weather conditions and attendance limits in Canada. Dozens of matches that would have been played in cold, empty arenas in the middle of winter have been pushed into the window created by withdrawing from the Beijing Olympics and some beyond to the point that government officials gave fire green to fans at full capacity.

When the Maple Leafs host the Lightning and the Oilers host the Los Angeles Kings on Monday night, it will be the first playoff games in Canada with full arenas since 2019. Leafs star and NHL leading scorer Auston Matthews called the fans returning to full capacity “something we’re all looking forward to.”

It’s perhaps fitting that Toronto and Edmonton are bringing sold-out crowds back after those cities hosted the 2020 bubble playoffs. The 2022 playoffs should be the furthest thing from those dark days, though the league keep an eye out for potential border and virus issues that may arise without warning.

Entering a full 82-game season for all 32 teams now after the addition of the Seattle Kraken is cause for celebration in the NHL, which is on track to complete the playoffs before July 1.

“It all says we’re back,” Bettman said. “And it’s great to have our fans back. It’s great to have our game on a more normal schedule. A bit later than usual, but we’ll sort that out next year.

With files from The Canadian Press.

Follow AP Hockey writer Stephen Whyno on Twitter at https://twitter.com/SWhyno

More AP NHL: https://apnews.com/hub/NHL and https://twitter.com/AP-Sports

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