Dallas, TX – Sam Baker, KERA 90.1 Morning Edition host: The Dallas Stars stand on the brink of elimination tonight as they face the New Jersey Devils in game five of the Stanley Cup Finals. If the Devils win, they take the best-of-seven series. From the National Hockey League's perspective, though, the Stars have already scored a success of sorts, as 90.1's Bill Zeeble reports.
Bill Zeeble, KERA 90.1 reporter: Last year, the Dallas Stars became the first of the new NHL franchises in the deep south to win a championship. It took less than a decade. With this year's return to the Stanley Cup finals, Dallas and the National Hockey League set even deeper roots in the parched, hot environment of the American south and southwest. The region's been more hospitable to the cold-weather sport than many thought, according to National Hockey League Commissioner Gary Bettman.
Gary Bettman, National Hockey League Commissioner: The newer teams are doing very well. Expansion for us has been an unqualified success. The teams are all drawing well and are immensely popular in their markets.
Zeeble: Those markets, where hockey teams have sprouted like weeds, now include not only Dallas, but Atlanta, Nashville, Tampa, Anaheim, and Phoenix, among others. The NHL schedule, which listed six teams in the late 1960's, now holds 28.
Jim Lites, President of the Dallas Stars and the Texas Rangers baseball team: The interest here in Dallas has been unbelievable.
Zeeble: Jim Lites is the Star's president, and also heads up the Texas Rangers baseball club. He adds, despite the successes, other league problems persist.
Lites: I think nationally we've struggled with creating fans in markets that aren't playing, but given unbelievable interest the game has created in new markets it's been in -- since 1993, we've entered nine new non-hockey markets and played to huge crowds -- its shortcomings on TV are apparent.
Bettman: This is a very difficult, fragmented TV marketplace.
Zeeble: Again, hockey commissioner Gary Bettman, talking about tv ratings of the Stanley Cup finals
Bettman: And while we don't have the NFL's numbers, and sure, any sport would desire to have them, the fact is we are important programming. Lots of people watch us, and I believe over time it will get better.
Zeeble: But until that happens, Bettman says the NHL's rapid growth in the U.S. is over.
Bettman: We don't want to have to relocate, and we are not looking to do any expansion. That is not even on the radar screen right now.
Zeeble: But those small market problems still nag the league. The NHL seed was planted in Canada a century ago, where the sport reigns as a national treasure. When hockey legend Maurice Richard died last week, the Hall of Famer, who retired 40 years ago and was known as the Rocket, prompted Canada-wide memorials. The Montreal Expos baseball team even started wearing black arm bands and will wear them through the end of the baseball season, in memory of the Rocket. But in Richard's home town of Quebec, there is no longer an NHL team. It moved south to the U.S. some time ago. So did the team in Winnipeg.
Bettman: We are going to have to address these issues in a profound way that ensures the long- term competitive stability and success of all of our franchises, particularly and including the so- called small-market Canadian franchises that has been and that will remain a priority.
Zeeble: The Star's president Jim Lites says that leaves franchises like his, the one in Phoenix, Carolina and elsewhere, working to build hockey interest among children. They're the future fans of the league. It also means major cities without a hockey team, like Houston, won't get a team yet.
Lites: It would be wonderful for us, ?cause it would create a natural rivalry for us. But I believe Houston will get a team eventually.
Zeeble: Lites believes Houston will be the first to get a team, once the town builds an arena adequate for basketball and hockey. But he's also convinced a new Houston team would transfer from another city. That would mean Commissioner Bettman had failed in his goal, which is to make sure every existing franchise is healthy enough so its owner would not want or need to move it to Houston. For KERA 90.1, I?m Bill Zeeble.