International hockey returns to the NHL as Bettman announces Four Nations Face-Off

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Sunrise, Fla. — All is right with the National Hockey League world — attendance has been almost through the roof in the regular season and the playoffs, the top player on the planet Connor McDavid is currently on the biggest stage in the Stanley Cup Final and eight months from now, we’re finally going to get the first in-season international NHL player, best-on-best tournament since the 2014 Olympics at Sochi.

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NHL commissioner Gary Bettman was Mr. Positivity Saturday in his meet and greet with the media before Game 1 of the Edmonton Oilers-Florida Panthers battle, as he partnered with his current best friend, NHLPA head man Marty Walsh to officially announce the Four Nations Face-Off next February in Montreal and Boston.

The round robin tournament will run Feb. 12-20 — Canada, USA, Sweden, Finland — with games at the Bell Centre and TD Garden. Four games at the Canadiens’ home base, with Canada playing Sweden Feb. 12 and USA Feb. 15 in Montreal and three at the Bruins arena with Canada squaring off with Finland Feb. 17.

Three points for a win, two for a win in OT or shootout, and one point for a loss in extra time with the championship one-game final after the round robin results Feb. 20 at TD Garden. There will be no three vs. four consolation game.

“We’re doing this tournament instead of the All-Star game and we don’t want to extend it (the break in the schedule) too much, so just the round robin,” said Bettman’s right-hand man Bill Daly, also at the presser, with all games on SportsNet in Canada and the ESPN and TNT carriers in the U.S.

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Why Montreal and Boston?

“These are two iconic franchises. Obviously we have 32 franchises and we could have picked anywhere but these two cities are excited about hosting,” said Daly.

“Passionate hockey fans in both places,” said Walsh, the former Boston mayor.

“From one of my first meetings with Gary, we talked about international hockey.”

The players haven’t been to the last two Olympics and they crave nation-on-nation competition, and feel they’ve been shortchanged with it. So have the fans.

The first six players from each country will be announced at the draft June 28.

Slam dunk that Edmonton Oilers captain Connor McDavid, who leads the playoffs with his 31 points in 18 games, will be one of the first six for Canada, and an educated guess would also have Penguins captain Sidney Crosby, and the two Colorado Avalanche studs Nathan MacKinnon and Cale Makar as the top four.

You can expect Florida’s Finnish captain Sasha Barkov to be one of the six for Finland and his teammate Matthew Tkachuk for the U.S. Maybe Oilers D-man Mattias Ekholm for Sweden. Be nice, if the Oilers’ Deutschland Dangler Leon Draisaitl, one of the 10 best players in the world, could be a roving pick, suiting up for all four squads on a rotating business. But Germany’s not in it.

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And, Russia is still on the outs in any hockey tournament as long as Putin still is fighting in Ukraine. Czechia won the recent world championship but they aren’t included, either.

While it’s a possibility a Russian player Nikita Kucherov in Tampa wins the Hart Trophy after he also won the scoring title, what does Bettman say to the Russian players who can’t play because of the Russia-Ukraine war?

“There’s only so much we can under these circumstances,” said Bettman. “Whether it’s the Four Nations or the Olympics, people can have opinions. We’ve spent a lot of time and effort with the Players Association on this.”

Here’s some things Bettman and Daly talked about:

• The salary cap ceiling for 2024-2025 will be $88 million, a bump of $4.5 million from this past season, with the floor $65 million.

“It means the general managers will have more flexibility (in signing players next season) and that revenues are robust as we’ve been telling you all along,” said Bettman.

In Edmonton, it’ll still be a tight squeeze. Like Oilers role-playing winger Connor Brown, while playing well now after struggling to score for the first four months, will unfortunately eat up $3.25 million of that increase with his 2023-24 bonuses. Bettman wouldn’t say how high it would go up after it was a flat-cap because of COVID, but $100 million is probably a team goal.

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• While the league moved the Coyotes out of Arizona to Salt Lake City, there are no plans for expansion. “We’re not unveiling a formal expansion process but we have half-a-dozen places interested,” said Bettman.

Daly said the feedback he’s received from a good number of GMs is a desire to rejig the current LTIR rules in terms of not having a salary cap in the playoffs. Like not allowing teams to field $90 million playoff payrolls after injured players return. But the tweak won’t happen without the NHLPA input.

• The league set an all-time record for total attendance, close to 22 million fans, 97 per cent capacity in the 31 rinks, which included the 4,600-seat bandbox Mullett Arena in Arizona. The overall figure included 150,000 fans watching two games over a 24-hour period watching two outdoor games in New Jersey.

• Going into Round 4 of the playoffs, 89 per cent of the games have either been one- or two-goal margins, emphasizing the parity in the league that all GMs preach to their fans when they get knocked out before the finals. That’s the highest percentage in NHL history.

• In the regular season here were nine 100-point scorers and 17 40-goal shooters, including four over 50, including Oilers winger Zach Hyman, with 54, and Florida’s Sam Reinhart, with 57, both in the Final.

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