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NHL PREVIEW : Unrest Carries Over From the Offseason

<i> From Associated Press</i>

Anything that could go wrong for the NHL in the off-season did go wrong.

An unsettled collective bargaining agreement, an unsettled television contract, a couple of expansion franchises in financial trouble, uproars over free agents and a celebrated No. 1 draft pick snubbing the league.

It has been a public relations nightmare.

The players’ contract could be the league’s biggest continuing headache as the NHL opens its 75th season Oct. 3 with the original six teams -- New York Rangers, Boston Bruins, Detroit Red Wings, Chicago Blackhawks, Toronto Maple Leafs and Montreal Canadiens -- playing each other wearing replicas of their earlier uniforms.

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Owners and players met several times over the summer, sometimes acrimoniously, in an attempt to fashion a new collective bargaining agreement by the time the old one expired on Sept. 15. No agreement was reached and NHL president John Ziegler was not hopeful of a quick settlement, although he did say substantial progress had been made since the talks began last June.

If no agreement is reached, the players have the option of a strike and the owners of a lockout.

To the owners’ horror, the players have called for abolition of the entry draft for amateurs and removal of all restrictions on free agency.

Eric Lindros, for one, would approve wholeheartedly of the abolition of the draft.

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The celebrated No. 1 pick of this year’s draft by the Quebec Nordiques has made an issue of his individual rights. The 18-year-old Lindros, who made a strong showing for Team Canada in the Canada Cup tournament, has made no secret about his objections to playing in Quebec. He has followed through with his announced intention to go back to juniors rather than play for the Nordiques.

The free agent situation, meanwhile, came to a boiling point over the summer when an arbitrator awarded high-profile defenseman Scott Stevens to the New Jersey Devils as compensation for the St. Louis Blues signing forward Brendan Shanahan.

Stevens, of course, was a big-name free agent himself the year before. When he left Washington to sign an unprecedented contract for a defenseman with St. Louis, it cost the Blues five future first-round picks as compensation.

The players were already chafing under the NHL’s tough free-agency rules and the Shanahan ruling only increased their bitterness. St. Louis’ Brett Hull suggests that the decision to award Stevens to New Jersey as compensation for Shanahan was punishment for the Blues’ audacity in signing Stevens and Shanahan.

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“The message was clear: Don’t sign free agents,” Hull said.

Stevens was upset at being taken away from the team with the second-best record in the NHL last year and at first said he had no intention of joining the Devils. But he did report.

Although the ruling seemed to hold the line on widespread movement of free agents, some teams weren’t scared away by the situation. Certainly not the Boston Bruins, who tried to take forward Kevin Stevens away from the Pittsburgh Penguins. But Pittsburgh reluctantly Stevens matched the five-year contract offered by the Bruins and reportedly worth $5 million.

The Penguins didn’t lose Stevens, but the defending Stanley Cup champions did lose their coach -- at least for now. Bob Johnson underwent emergency surgery for a brain tumor. Johnson has vowed a comeback, but first faced the prospect of radiation treatment.

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The Penguins have decided to let their assistant coaches run the club, in effect coaching by committee, at least for the present.

Meanwhile, there have been coaching changes with other teams: John Paddock has taken over for Bob Murdoch at Winnipeg, Rick Bowness for Mike Milbury at Boston, Jim Roberts for Rick Ley at Hartford and Ted Green for John Muckler at Edmonton. Muckler left the Oilers to become director of hockey operations for the Buffalo Sabres. The other new coach in the NHL this season will be George Kingston, who will take over the expansion San Jose Sharks.

The Sharks debut is the start of another burst of expansion in the NHL. The league’s plans included seven new teams by the year 2000, including the Tampa Bay Lightning and Ottawa Senators for next season. But the financial stability of both teams is under question and the league has undertaken an investigation into the matter.

A more pressing headache for the NHL was the television situation. The NHL’s $17 million-a-year contract with SportsChannel America has expired after three seasons and the NHL was reportedly hoping to put together a package involving both SCA and ESPN, another national sports cable network.

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In any event, the money won’t be as good. Nor will the coverage be as complete, probably.

When the NHL had a contract exclusively with ESPN from 1985 to 1988, the league had the potential of reaching nearly 60 million homes. In the three years with SCA, the NHL liked the money but wasn’t thrilled with the marketing. Distributorship problems cropped up across America, keeping games out of several hockey-oriented regions and the SCA potential audience was only about one-fourth of ESPN’s in America.

While there wasn’t much movement of free-agent players in the off-season, there were plenty of trades, involving such well-known names as Grant Fuhr, Glenn Anderson, Kirk Muller, Stephan Richer, Doug Wilson and Tim Kerr.

Fuhr and Anderson, two of the maintstays of the championship Edmonton Oiler teams of the early 1980s, were sent to Toronto in a stunning, seven-player deal also involving Vincent Damphousse and Luke Richardson. Muller, who had walked out of the New Jersey camp in a contract dispute, was sent from the Devils to Montreal for Richer in a four-player deal. Wilson, a longtime star defenseman with the Chicago Blackhawks, was traded to San Jose. And Kerr, a big favorite in Philadelphia for many years, wound up with the division-rival New York Rangers.

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Another big-name player in a new city was Jari Kurri, the former Oiler who joined the Los Angeles Kings after a year in Europe. That reunited him with Wayne Gretzky, his former linemate on the great Oiler teams of the 1980s.

With Gretzky and Kurri together again, the Kings are regarded as one of the pre-season favorites for the Stanley Cup. Overall, the league is well balanced, in large part thanks to the continuing influx of good eastern European players.

Along with the 75th anniversary, this will be a unique season for the NHL in another way: For the first time, the league will use video replay cameras to settle arguments over goals.


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