KELLEY: NHL has issues to address

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Jim Kelley



By and large, it was a pretty good on-ice season for the National Hockey League. Division races were reasonably good and competitive. The playoffs were well contested and fairly well attended. The Stanley Cup final, after a slow and in some ways troublesome start, evolved into a competitive and, at times, entertaining series with good story lines, well-contested games (at least after the first two) and an unpredictable outcome that took a full seven games to decide. Off the ice, however, the NHL, if not at a crossroads, has at the very least come to a pronounced fork in the road. Decisions need to be made about the next collective bargaining agreement (the current pact expires in September 2004). The league also needs to evaluate — and according to many of its critics, seriously consider — ways to upgrade the entertainment value of a game that finds itself under ever-increasing criticism. The resolution of the CBA, a joint agreement between the NHL and the NHL players association, is of course key to most everything the league might hope to accomplish in growth (and in some cases survival) and stability as the league plans for its future. The league maintains that the current CBA is flawed and commissioner Gary Bettman has long campaigned — so far with no results — to get the NHLPA to the bargaining table sooner rather than later. From where Bettman sits, the current pact is seriously flawed, is having a devastating financial impact on the game and needs to be restructured with what Bettman often refers to as "cost certainty." Bettman can point to the fact that two franchises, Ottawa and Buffalo, went bankrupt this season (both are now emerging under new ownership) and that several other teams, including many longtime members of the league, are in dire financial circumstances. He has not ruled out the possibility that other teams could fail if a new agreement isn't forthcoming. Pittsburgh would appear to be one of the older franchises at risk. Among newer teams, Nashville is rumored to be in some economic trouble, as are Tampa Bay and Florida. As many as six franchises are either rumored to be or openly are for sale, including the of Anaheim, the first runner-up in this year's Stanley Cup pageant. The NHLPA is not quite on the same page in that regard. Union boss Bob Goodenow is aware that some franchises are in trouble, but he's quick to point out that many of the fiscal ills in the game today were created by owners, not players or the collective bargaining agreement. Goodenow repeatedly points to the relative success of several low-budget teams, including the Ottawa (first in the Eastern Conference and the NHL in the regular season and a team that came within one win of going to the Cup finals). Goodenow also notes the on- and off-ice success of the Vancouver , an elite team in the West; the Minnesota , a Western final-four participant; the of Anaheim, a Stanley Cup finalist and the Tampa Bay , a surprise playoff team this spring. All of those teams came in under or slightly over a $30 million budget, a figure many consider to be lower than what even the league would want if there was a salary cap. Goodenow is on record as saying that teams can win in the NHL if they manage their business and hockey operations well and that the players will never accept a cap. That makes for a true point of contention with any negotiated settlement and has led many to anticipate a long lockout or strike come the end of next season. On the ice, the problems are not as complex, but they are vexing nonetheless. Like a lot of pro sports, the NHL is having problems holding, let alone building, a television audience, problematical given that the NHL's various television-rights deals expire along the same timeline as the current CBA. Any loss in television revenue would be felt in the pockets of the players, as well as the owners. The game is also under criticism for being painfully dull. Defense-first hockey prevails to the point of almost smothering offense, creativity and the improvisational beauty of a game that has long touted itself for its speed and the ability of its players to make great plays at high speed. Goal scoring has been largely static in the NHL for years despite numerous tweaks to improve the speed and flow of the game and major rule crackdowns designed for similar effect. The results of those crackdowns have been mixed, but the perception among many is that the game has slowed to a crawl, offense is virtually nonexistent and that coaches are to blame. They say the coaches are strangling the life out of the game with an endless series of defensive schemes that have reduced the game to little more than one team dumping the puck into the offensive zone while the other team rushes in to dump it back out. Bettman disputes that, saying that scoring among elite players is up, but even that contention has been disputed. Critics claim that much of the increase came early in the season when there were power plays galore, the result of yet another crackdown on obstruction penalties. The critics also maintain that even if scoring is up, it's marginal and nowhere near the output when the game was more about goal scoring and less about defense and goaltending. Bettman is not insensitive to those charges, and to his credit, the league has tried to increase the speed, flow, and, by extension, offense in the game. The measures put in place so far have had marginal results. Real or imagined — and in many areas, it's a combination of both — the league needs to respond. Rows upon rows of empty seats in many markets are a clear indication that more and more fans are not buying what the NHL is selling. In some markets that's due largely to the high cost of attending an NHL game, one of the more expensive nights out in pro sports today. Yet even among the well-heeled, the game appears to be losing popularity as more games become deadly dull affairs dominated by defense and by coaches who maintain that the only way to win is to limit scoring chances. It's a major issue for the league and one that Bettman, though guarded in his statements, appears to be determined to correct. How he does it, coupled with whether or not he gets cooperation or resistance from team management, coaches and the players association will go along way toward determining the shape of the NHL now and in the years to come. Jim Kelley can be reached at his e-mail address: jkelley@foxsports.com.
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