On Thin Ice

The NHL's Future Just Might Fall Through

The National Hockey League rolled out of bed, stretched its limbs, and began its new season this month. It was greeted by yawns.

New York hockey fans expect October indifference, especially if the town's baseball clubs are playing on autumn's frosty evenings. But when ESPN, the NHL's U.S. network, lets seven SportsCenter minutes elapse before covering the season debut, and when the Montreal Canadiens offer two tickets for the price of one, one wonders if the world has grown tired of the NHL.

Wayne Gretzky's 1988 trade to Los Angeles made hockey hip, unleashing a gold rush in new and old markets by serious businessmen and unfiltered scamsters. But the dreams of big new cash-box arenas, expansion to exotic locales, lucrative TV and marketing deals, and a league of contented players have dissolved into a reality of empty seats, red-ink stadia, musical-chair franchises, revenue shortfalls, and a talent pool stretched thin, standing fat, and under attack.

The NHL office habitually denies troubled horizons. They trumpet growing revenues, their continuing march through the Sun Belt (which has retaken Atlanta), and their strongholds like Toronto and Detroit, where tickets are available only through the wills of the deceased. But as star players remain unsigned, as the Penguins emerge from bankruptcy and others hover perilously close, they need reminding that a chain is only as strong as its weakest link. Can it be a good sign that five teams changed hands last year (some at a loss) and others—including Disney's Ducks and five of Canada's six clubs—may be on the block? Are owners, sensing franchise values have peaked, cashing in their chips?

As Flyers owner Ed Snider admitted recently, "The future of the league financially is a real problem."

That's just one issue. Gretzky's exit leaves the sport with no top marquee attraction for the first time since Maurice Richard rocketed to immortality in the mid 1940s. Unable to "break" another superstar personality, the NHL must still trade on Gretzky's fame: Each home opener featured a "99" rinkboard in tribute, and he's expected to be the All-Star Week centerpiece in January. The NHL hoped Pittsburgh's Jaromir Jagr might fill the vacuum, but, like the many Europeans who form much of the league's elite, he has demurred. "First I have to learn to speak better," he says. Xenophobic Madison Avenue must cringe at the thought of Jagr's Czech accent hawking fast food or rental cars.

"You can market locally with Europeans," the Red Wings' senior vice president Jimmy Devellano recently told the Toronto Sun, "but I don't know about nationally...I don't think it matters a damn in Canada, but in the United States...you have to miss the Gretzkys and [Mario] Lemieuxs because they filled buildings."

And there are many buildings to fill. The league has ballooned from 21 to 28 teams (and 30 next year) since 1991, and the demand for quality players has outstripped the supply. "In the '80s, every team had four or five superstars and now it's two or three," says Atlanta GM Don Wadell, after assembling his expansion Thrashers from league castoffs. "Maybe the 17 to 20 spots on the bottom of the lineup aren't as strong either."

This dilution has contributed to a plague of boring games. Excitement was once almost guaranteed in the NHL but now sophisticated defenses smother skill. Rule tweaking continues; the most unusual involves tie games. Commissioner Gary Bettman undressed the old hockey cliché "a tie is like kissing your sister" by promoting a more promiscuous overtime and, uh, scoring. Now each team gets a point for their 60 minutes of work, then removes one skater and plays the five-minute sudden death OT for a second point (somewhat akin to letting baseball teams keep a half game in the standings after nine innings, then taking out right fielders in the 10th to play for the other half). Theoretically, with nothing to lose, OT should be spicier. But as Devils center Bobby Holik said after a tie in Ottawa, "I don't agree with giving the losing team one point. When you lose, you lose, and when you win, you should win it all."

"It's a huge change in the fabric of the game," says Detroit Hall of Fame coach Scotty Bowman, wondering if the price for five potentially thrilling minutes might be 20 boring ones. "If an underdog team is in a tie situation, they might decide to play tight longer. They can keep at least a point. Teams will react to the standings. A team in your own conference, you may want to play careful so they don't get the extra point."

The league badly needs drama because hockey has team sports' most expensive ticket, estimated to average $230 per game for a family of four. The owners blame high salaries; the players' union says fan resistance sets ticket prices. Regardless, the long-held image of NHLers as the everyday people of pro athletes is evaporating. "Hockey players who once drove beer trucks in the summer in order to make ends meet now earn $100,000 or more per goal," Canada's great author Mordecai Richler recently mused, describing the estrangement felt toward today's heroes.

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