CHICAGO — NHL Commissioner Gary Bettman is a year removed from canceling preseason games in the early stages of the league’s lockout of its players.
Now there are rising television ratings, along with participation in another Winter Olympics and settled ownership in Phoenix and New Jersey.
So where does the NHL go from here?
“We just want more of the same,” Bettman said Thursday at a promotion for the March 1 outdoor game between the Chicago Blackhawks and Pittsburgh Penguins at Soldier Field. “We want to continue to build off the foundation we have. The game on the ice is as strong as it’s ever been. And we’re looking to continue to find ways to connect with our fans that will energize our fan base and grow it.”
The league expanded the outdoor schedule from one game, the New Year’s Day Winter Classic, to six this season, including two games at Yankee Stadium and one at Dodger Stadium. Bettman considers the big-event strategy important in generating interest in the NHL.
“This game, all the outdoor games, are one element of it,” Bettman said. “We have the Olympics and we have what we think will be an exciting, competitive season. We’re going to continue to grow. Our fan engagement, not just TV ratings, but through social media and NHL.com, is growing.”
The outdoor game in Chicago is the only one scheduled after the Olympics. Soldier Field, which holds 61,500 for football games, will have a rink placed in the middle of the field. In February, about 52,000 fans attended a college hockey doubleheader co-hosted by Wisconsin and Notre Dame.
The last Winter Classic in Chicago was a sellout between Blackhawks and Detroit at Wrigley Field on Jan. 1, 2009. Blackhawks president John McDonough expects a full house next year at Soldier Field.
“There’s going to be great, great demand for this game,” McDonough said. “You can be sure we’re going to be asking to host another one.”
The Blackhawks are the first team to host two outdoor games.
“This combination catches the imagination and gives our fans a special experience,” Bettman said. “For the teams involved, fans can’t get enough of it. We think we can manage this, put on all six games well.”