Gary Bettman defends NHL handling of Pride night situations

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NHL commissioner Gary Bettman speaks before the NHL All-Star hockey game, Saturday, Feb. 4, 2023, in Sunrise, Fla. (AP Photo/Lynne Sladky)

SUNRISE, Fla. – NHL Commissioner Gary Bettman at his state of the game news conference Saturday at All-Star Weekend defended the way the league and two teams handled situations that arose regarding Pride night celebrations.

Philadelphia Flyers defenseman Ivan Provorov did not take part in warmups Jan. 18 because he refused to wear a Pride-themed jersey. Nine days later, the New York Rangers opted not to wear Pride jerseys or use Pride stick tape as part of their night despite previously advertising they planned to do so.

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Bettman said tolerance of varying viewpoints was part of being “open, welcoming and inclusive.”

“You know what our goals, our values and our intentions are across the league, whether it’s at the league level or at the club level,” he said. “But we also have to respect some individual choice, and some people are more comfortable embracing themselves in causes than others. And part of being diverse and welcoming is understanding those differences.”

Bettman said the NHL was not accepting bigotry or promoting homophobia. Provorov cited his Russian Orthodox religion for his decision, which coach John Tortorella supported, while the Rangers said in a statement: "Our organization respects the LGBTQ+ community and we are proud to bring attention to important local community organizations as part of another great Pride Night. In keeping with our organization’s core values, we support everyone’s individual right to respectfully express their beliefs.”

Bettman also revealed 2024 All-Star Weekend will take place in Toronto, addressed concerns about U.S. TV ratings and the current playoff format and provided an update on the sale process of the Ottawa Senators.

TORONTO ALL-STAR

The NHL is trading fun in the sun in South Florida for the hype and buzz of All-Star festivities in the so-called center of the hockey universe in Toronto Feb. 2-3, 2024. It's the first time the Maple Leafs are set to host since 2000.

“Being in Toronto where hockey is so important, we may not have 80-degree temperature, but we’ve got real intensity in one of the great hockey markets in the world,” Bettman said.

The league originally planned to stage a World Cup of Hockey in February 2024, but plans fell through because of complications resulting from Russia's war in Ukraine. Toronto hosted the 2016 World Cup and has all the infrastructure in place to make All-Star Weekend happen in a place popular among players.

“The city is always buzzing, especially for an event like this,” Leafs All-Star and Toronto area native Mitch Marner said. “It’s going to be every ready for it.”

RATINGS WOES?

Amid reports of U.S. TV ratings being down this season, Bettman said so many games streaming on ESPN+ were the cause and brushed off worries about the NHL on ESPN and TNT.

"Our ratings are fine," Bettman said. “Let’s not get too carried away with ratings because viewership overall is up nationally.”

PLAYOFF FORMAT

Some All-Stars, including longtime face of the league Sidney Crosby, have said they would prefer going back to the old playoff format that seeded teams 1 through 8 in the Eastern and Western Conferences.

Currently, each division winner faces a wild-card opponent and second place against third, which could mean two of the top six teams in the NHL meeting in the first round and the league-leading Boston Bruins facing the winner in the second.

“The debate of 1 versus 8, it’s not just that,” Bettman said. “You’ve got to also look at then changing the wild card and you’ve got to start looking at the matchups in terms of how many times everybody’s playing everybody else if you’re having conference-based playoffs. So it’s not as simple as saying, ‘I’d like 1 versus 8’ versus what we have. It involves a whole host of other issues that have to be addressed.”

SENATORS SALE

The process of selling the Senators after the death of owner Eugene Melnyk is ongoing, with 15 or more parties involved in the application process. No matter what happens, Bettman said, the team isn't leaving Canada's capital and could even move to a new downtown arena.

“I want to be clear that whoever buys this club is doing so to keep it in Ottawa," he said. "I say that so there’s no speculation.”

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

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