NHL

Bettman watches Panthers' return to playoffs

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SUNRISE, Fla. (AP)

The first Florida Panthers' playoff game in 12 years was one that NHL Commissioner Gary Bettman wouldn't miss.

Bettman was in the crowd Friday night for Game 1 of Florida's Eastern Conference first-round series against New Jersey, a matchup that officially marked the end of what was the NHL's longest active playoff drought. The Panthers' most recent playoff game was April 20, 2000.

''When you go a period of time with competitive frustration, it wears at a fan base,'' Bettman said during the first intermission. ''It wears at an organization. But it shows the resiliency of hockey in South Florida that we've gotten back to this point.''

Florida won the Southeast Division championship this season, its first such title in franchise history.

''I'm happy for the fans down here, who so loyally and spectacularly supported this franchise over the years,'' Bettman said. ''We're in a magnificent arena. Everybody knows that. And this is a team that even through some lean times has gotten some really good fan support that's only going to increase as the team's performance increases.''

Bettman touched on a number of topics in a brief meeting with reporters, most notably the NHL's looming labor talks.

Donald Fehr, who previously led the union for Major League Baseball players, became executive director of the NHLPA in December 2010. As he has said in the past, Bettman insisted that when Fehr is ready to talk, the league will also be ready.

''There's no immediate pressure,'' Bettman said.

Hockey's CBA expires Sept. 15, and Bettman said he hopes the talks - whenever they begin - are ''quick, quiet and painless.''

Much of his remarks Friday revolved around the Panthers, and the commissioner especially raved about the job Florida general manager Dale Tallon and coach Kevin Dineen did this season.

''I get down here a lot,'' Bettman said. ''The buzz down here has been great all season. It's increasing. It's a testament again to what Dale and Kevin have done with the team. It's obviously a testament to how the players have been playing. And I also think it's a testament to hockey in South Florida. As the team continued to show it was for real, the response was showing increased vibrancy.''

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Follow Tim Reynolds on Twitter at http://www.twitter.com/ByTimReynolds

Tagged: Panthers

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