HARTFORD, Conn. (AP) _ NHL commissioner Gary Bettman on Tuesday denied a report that the Hartford Whalers are moving to Nashville, Tenn.

``It's not true,'' Bettman said during a conference call that was arranged in response to the ESPN broadcast. ``It's unfortunate for such a report to come out because I know the Whalers have not been in negotiations with Nashville.''

ESPN cited ``sources at the league ownership level'' as saying Connecticut officials decided to give up trying to keep the Whalers, and would allow them to move to Nashville.

The sources told the Bristol-based sports cable network that the league could announce a move by the Whalers as early as the end of the week.

Gaylord Entertainment Co. of Nashville has been seeking an NBA or NHL franchise, and has a standing offer to any team interested in a new home.

``It's really, in some respects, old news, because we all know Nashville is interested in having a new franchise for their new building,'' Bettman said.

Vince Doria, managing editor for ESPN, said the station was standing by its story, reported by anchor Keith Olbermann.

``Keith's sources on this, particularly one of them, have been excellent sources in the past,'' Doria said. ``Keith learned of this just prior to the 2 a.m. show last night, and after talking about it with the coordinating producer and other producers, and other sources in the league, considered it strong enough to go with.''

Doria added the story said the Whalers ``could'' move by the end of the week. ``That doesn't mean it is definitely going to happen by the end of the week,'' he said.

Bettman said a decision on a move could not and would not be made until after May 1, the deadline of a monthlong campaign to more than double the team's season-ticket base to 11,000.

The team planned to release initial results of the campaign Wednesday. Based on the numbers he has heard, Bettman said the drive is far from its goal.

`I don't think we're up near 8,000 or 9,000, and I think we have to start doing some work for the campaign to be successful,'' Bettman said.

Still, Bettman maintained it was the league's preference not to relocate any franchise, and that discussing a Whalers move before the campaign is complete would be premature.

Earlier in the day, Hartford general manager Jim Rutherford and Lt. Gov. Jodi Rell moved quickly to dispel the notion of a relocation to Nashville, and also questioned the timing of the report.

``We have not talked to anyone in Nashville,'' Rutherford said.

Gaylord Entertainment spokesman Alan Hall also denied talking with the team, characterizing reports of a Whalers move to Nashville as ``just media speculation.''

``We have not had any discussions with the Hartford Whalers,'' he said.

Reports have been surfacing on and off for weeks about the team's fate, and Nashville has been among several cities mentioned as a possible new home.

Fueling the speculation is the fact that the owners themselves say they will consider a relocation should the ticket drive fail.

Under a sales agreement with the state, the owners promised to keep the team in Connecticut until the end of the 1997-98 season. But they can buy out of the contract if the state gives its permission.

Rutherford said he is not surprised Nashville is now the front-runner, considering that city's standing offer and the ongoing ticket drive.

``It's no secret that Nashville wants a team, and no secret that there's a campaign going on in Hartford,'' Rutherford said. ``It's not hard to see how someone can put this kind of story together.''

Gaylord Entertainment owns, among other properties, TNN-The Nashville Network, CMT-Country Music Television, Opryland Hotel and theme park and the Grand Ole Opry.

``We've been talking with the NHL offices about trying to get a team here in Nashville,'' Hall said. ``We've talked to them in general terms about how interested we are in a NHL team. Anyone interested in moving a team ... that's certainly someone we'd be interested in talking with.''