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.

The summer's most burdensome story was the ongoing player-owner cold war. Claiming revenues lag behind salaries, most teams closed the door on free agents (forcing a league denial of collusion), but their cows are already outside the barn. Salaries exploded from an average of $250,000 to $1.3 million this decade, the biggest leap coming since the 1994 lockout. The NHL extended the subsequent agreement to 2004 in exchange for the union's agreeing to have players promote the sport through Olympic participation (and whatever good Nagano achieved was easily offset by U.S. players trashing an Olympic Village dorm).

"The players and owners are both just grabbing everything they can before 2004," says a respected insider. "Because, after that, the owners are just going to turn the lights out, lock the door and go home."

A Grand Canyon of competitive imbalance may also loom ahead. "Except for a small handful of teams," Washington Capitols owner Ted Leonsis told the Globe and Mail, "the NHL as it's structured now can't make money." That disparity is reflected in our area's three clubs.

The wobbly Islanders, ravaged by a succession of self-destructive owners, are threatening to complete the process of unloading stars that they began last year. Their shrunken payroll ensures a frighteningly vacant arena. They could finish this season behind Atlanta; they could start next season in Houston.

The Devils, pioneers of the now fashionable tough approach to recalcitrant skaters, maintain their solid core of homegrown talent. But fans still fear their policy of trading scorers who want big money—like Claude Lemieux and Bill Guerin—could mean their regular-season winners will lack playoff punch and once again get early tee-times.

And then there are the Rangers, who earned the hatred of almost everyone in hockey by strolling into the unrestricted free-agent supermarket and filling their cart with $21 million worth of thirtysomethings Theo Fleury, Valeri Kamensky, Stephane Quintal, Sylvain Lefebvre, Tim Taylor, and Kirk MacLean. Later, via trade, they snagged Kevin Hatcher. The Ottawa Sun called the Rangers "the Death Stars of the NHL."

The Rangers may have broken ranks, but have broken no rules. They only want to give New York a winner, which some think would help the league. That's a minority opinion. "If the NHL itself is a team, the Rangers are that bonehead who won't pass to an open teammate and takes selfish penalties without apology," wrote the Calgary Sun's Martin Hudson in a story typical of the daily league-wide anti-Blueshirt venom. "You just gotta hate 'em. And that $58.2 million U.S. payroll."

Their miserable start has cheered Ranger haters everywhere. One would think the pricey newcomers might get the Rangers some playoff action—but that's what baseball's Dodgers thought when they drained $170 million from Rupert Murdoch's vault. They finished 23 games behind Arizona.

"When you hire a bunch of mercenaries," says Pierre McGuire, a former NHL coach who now writes for Sports Illustrated, "they bring in mercenary attitudes and lots of mercenary baggage. It can corrupt a team concept and team attitudes."

Rangers fans hope that won't happen here. But like lots of people who follow hockey, they could grow weary.

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