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NHL 1991-92 : There’s a Lot Not to Watch : Hockey: There is no national TV, no collective bargaining agreement and no Eric Lindros. But there are Sharks.

TIMES STAFF WRITER

For the National Hockey League, this is the season of living dangerously.

As of today, when the NHL begins its 75th season, it is the season of living without a national television contract in place.

It is the season of living without a new collective bargaining agreement.

And it is the season of living without Eric Lindros.

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Negotiations dragged on through summer on all three fronts. When the Stanley Cup finals ended last spring, the action merely shifted to the back rooms and boardrooms, where there were plenty of faceoffs and heated words.

But in the end, there were no winners or losers. Just a lot of overtime.

The collective bargaining agreement expired Sept. 15, but owners and players couldn’t agree on a new one. The two sides remain poles apart on two key issues--free agency and the entry draft. The players want the former but not the latter. The owners want the opposite.

For now, there’s a shaky truce as both sides live within the guidelines of the old agreement while making menacing sounds about the future.

Will the owners initiate a lockout? It’s probably too expensive.

Will the players call a strike? It’s probably too risky.

Will both sides resume talking? It’s probably too logical.

The ludicrousness of the present system was best illustrated by the case of Scott Stevens, defenseman of the Washington Capitals/St. Louis Blues/New Jersey Devils.

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A year ago, Stevens became a free agent and left Washington to sign with St. Louis. The cost to the Blues was five first-round draft picks.

But when St. Louis signed New Jersey forward Brendan Shanahan as a free agent this year, the cost in compensation, as decided by an arbitrator, was . . . Stevens.

That outraged not only Stevens, but many other players who saw the ruling as Exhibit A in the case against the current free-agency system.

“The message was clear,” St. Louis’ Brett Hull told the Associated Press. “Don’t sign free agents.”

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The prospects for a new television contract are much brighter. The league is coming off a three-year, $51-million deal with SportsChannel America that put money in the coffers, but not viewers in front of the sets. About 15 million people can get SportsChannel America, hardly the kind of numbers for building a national audience.

The league is expected to announce soon--perhaps as early as today--a new deal with SportsChannel. But don’t rule out a role for ESPN, as well.

If and when a television deal is set, one important face may be missing from the screen.

The arrival of Wayne Gretzky in the ‘80s had given the NHL exposure in areas where people had thought that icing was found only on cakes. Gretzky proved to be the Great One in the marketing world as well, selling everything from soft drinks to computer games. But most of all, he sold his sport.

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Right behind him came Hull and Mario Lemieux, two new stars to battle Gretzky in NHL arenas and to support him in NHL promotions.

And in the wings lurked Lindros, who, some whispered, could be the Greatest One. At 18, he has the size and the skills to threaten some of the marks Gretzky is still setting at 30.

Lindros clearly represents the league’s future, but he wants no part of being dictated to by the NHL. Drafted by the last-place Quebec Nordiques, Lindros has said he has no desire to struggle with a poor team, far from the major media centers.

Unable to sign him, the Nordiques have also been unable to work out a deal.

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It’s been an embarrassment for the league, but no more so than its grand expansion plans. A year ago, the NHL, 21 clubs strong, announced that it would add seven by the end of the decade.

First came the San Jose Sharks, who will start play this season.

Then came confusion.

Proposed new teams in Ottawa and Tampa ran into administrative and financial problems, leaving yet more tarnish on the NHL image.

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All these problems will be worked out. The owners and the players will learn to coexist. The NHL will be back on national television this season. Lindros is not going to spend the next few seasons breaking only junior hockey records. And further expansion will no doubt occur. But for now, the NHL has been cross-checked at every turn.

The league is celebrating the opening of its 75th season tonight by scheduling only the six original clubs--the Chicago Blackhawks, Toronto Maple Leafs, Montreal Canadiens, New York Rangers, Boston Bruins and Detroit Red Wings--with all wearing their original uniforms.

It’s a salute to a simpler time, when the spotlight was smaller, but so were the problems.

It’s a time the NHL will not see again.

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As the season begins, here’s a quick look at who’s who, what’s what and what might be, in one reporter’s opinion, with the probable order of finish:

SMYTHE DIVISION

CALGARY FLAMES

Last Season: Second at 46-26-8.

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This Season: With General Manager Cliff Fletcher gone, Coach Doug Risebrough adds those duties to his own. But if he doesn’t get past the first round of the playoffs, all the titles in the world won’t keep him employed. With Theoren Fleury (51 goals), Joe Nieuwendyk (45 goals) and offensive defenseman Al MacInnis (103 points), the Flames have no problem scoring goals. Goalie Mike Vernon makes up for some problems on defense. The Flames look set for the regular season, but the postseason could be another matter.

KINGS

Last Season: First at 46-24-10.

This Season: The Kings should have the best line in hockey with Gretzky and Tomas Sandstrom being joined by Jari Kurri, Gretzky’s old linemate in the salad days at Edmonton. But the holes created by the loss of defenseman Steve Duchesne and center Steve Kasper in the Kurri trade may take a while to repair. Look for this team to struggle in the early going, but it could peak as the playoffs roll around.

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EDMONTON OILERS

Last Season: Third at 37-37-6.

This Season: Who knows? Gretzky and Kurri will need to introduce themselves when they return to Edmonton. Gone, along with King additions Kurri and defenseman Charlie Huddy, are Coach John Muckler, goalie Grant Fuhr and forwards Glenn Anderson and Adam Graves. Rumored to be gone is former Hart Trophy winner Mark Messier. What’s left? Not enough to take the Oilers seriously.

VANCOUVER CANUCKS

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Last Season: Fourth at 28-43-9.

This Season: After an NHL-record 15 consecutive losing seasons, nobody is expecting miracles, but hopes have been raised by Vancouver’s strong showing in the first round of last season’s playoffs, where the Kings had to go six tough games to beat the Canucks. Some late-season trades that added Cliff Ronning and Geoff Courtnall give the club some offensive spark. But the Canucks still need a dominating center. And a whole lot more.

SAN JOSE SHARKS

Last Season: Didn’t Exist.

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This Season: It doesn’t look good, but it still looks a lot better than the prospects for most expansion teams. Brian Hayward should be able to do the job in goal. Veteran All-Star defenseman Doug Wilson will be a calming influence. Now, if only they could score. Brian Mullen, Kelly Kisio and Mark Pavelich should do enough to move this team ahead of the Jets.

WINNIPEG JETS

Last Season: Fifth at 26-43-11.

This Season: New Coach John Paddock has a few strengths to build on, such as goalie Bob Essensa, defenseman Phil Housley and center Thomas Steen. Paddock takes over for embattled Bob Murdoch, who presided over the demise of the Jets after their surprising performance the season before. Even the Sharks won’t keep the Jets from escaping the cellar.

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NORRIS DIVISION

CHICAGO BLACKHAWKS

Last Season: First at 49-23-8.

This Season: Coach Mike Keenan burned them out in the regular season, both physically and mentally, but there’s too much talent to keep them down.

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ST. LOUIS BLUES

Last Season: Second at 47-22-11.

This Season: With Hull and Adam Oates, there are no questions about the offense, but the loss of Stevens may hurt the defense too much to allow the Blues to catch the Blackhawks.

MINNESOTA NORTH STARS

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Last Season: Fourth at 27-39-14.

This Season: In any other division, the North Stars’ incredible postseason performance would guarantee them a higher finish. But this isn’t any other division.

DETROIT RED WINGS

Last Season: Third at 34-38-8.

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This Season: They have a lot of individual stars, such as Steve Yzerman, Jimmy Carson, Sergei Fedorov and Tim Cheveldae, but not enough overall team strength to move up.

TORONTO MAPLE LEAFS

Last Season: Fifth at 23-46-11.

This Season: The addition of Fuhr in goal could give them a solid base for the future. But the future is not now in Toronto.

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PATRICK DIVISION

PITTSBURGH PENGUINS

Last Season: First at 41-33-6.

This Season: The Stanley Cup triumph was no fluke. If Lemieux stays healthy all season and the Penguins continue to play good defense, it shouldn’t even be close this time.

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NEW YORK RANGERS

Last Season: Second at 36-31-13.

This Season: With the arrival of Graves, Tim Kerr and perhaps Messier, this could be a powerhouse club. But we’ve heard that before.

NEW JERSEY DEVILS

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Last Season: Fourth at 32-33-15.

This Season: Newcomers Stevens and Stephane Richer should make the Devils interesting, but this is as high as they can logically climb.

PHILADELPHIA FLYERS

Last Season: Fifth at 33-37-10.

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This Season: If goalie Ron Hextall is physically sound, if former Kings Duchesne and Kasper contribute and if they find more offense, the Flyers could move up. But that’s a lot of ifs.

WASHINGTON CAPITALS

Last Season: Third at 37-36-7.

This Season: The Capitals had trouble scoring last season, and it could be just as bleak again.

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NEW YORK ISLANDERS

Last Season: Sixth at 25-45-10.

This Season: The long delay in the sale of the team leaves Pat LaFontaine, in particular, and his fellow players, in general, up in the air--and the team down in the cellar.

ADAMS DIVISION

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BOSTON BRUINS

Last Season: First at 44-24-12.

This Season: With Andy Moog in goal and Ray Bourque back at the blue line, the Bruins should be able to hold off the rest of the division.

MONTREAL CANADIENS

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Last Season: Second at 39-30-11.

This Season: Goalie Patrick Roy will keep them in the race. Their lack of offense will keep them out of first place.

BUFFALO SABRES

Last Season: Third at 31-30-19.

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This Season: Great things were expected of the Sabres last season after they obtained Dale Hawerchuk. A year later, there are no great expectations.

HARTFORD WHALERS

Last Season: Fourth at 31-38-11.

This Season: Salary disputes with John Cullen and Pat Verbeek have damaged whatever hope the Whalers had of being competitive in the division.

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QUEBEC NORDIQUES

Last Season: Fifth at 16-50-14.

This Season: Without Lindros, watch out below. With him, watch out NHL.

The probable postseason lineup:

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Division finals--Kings over Flames, Blackhawks over North Stars, Penguins over Rangers, Canadiens over Bruins.

Conference finals--Blackhawks over Kings, Penguins over Canadiens.

Stanley Cup finals--Penguins over Blackhawks.


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