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Nice Spin, but Quality Is Answer

In his annual state-of-the-league address during last weekend’s All-Star festivities, Commissioner Gary Bettman sounded like Mr. Rogers. It’s a beautiful day in the NHL’s neighborhood, a beautiful day to be neighbors with the corporate sponsors whose logos dot the ice of NHL rinks and with the folks at Fox who make hockey pucks grow tails and glow.

Bettman, taking the offensive, said critics of the “alleged watering down of the talent pool” are not only wrong, they’re ignoring history. At the All-Star break, only nine of 26 teams, 35%, were above .500. Ten years ago, he pointed out, eight of 21 teams, 38%, were above .500 at the break.

“Cries of gloom and doom may be an overreaction,” he said.

Maybe not. With more talent available than 10 years ago, including players from the former Soviet Union, shouldn’t there be more teams at or above .500? And why should scoring be down from an average of 6.4 goals a game last season to 5.9?

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Bettman attributed the record pace of shutouts to goaltending “that’s probably stronger than it’s ever been,” and said although power-play goals are down dramatically, even-strength goals have increased.

Of course they have. With fewer penalties being called and fewer power plays, there are more even-strength scoring opportunities, and therefore more even-strength goals.

As for obstruction, Bettman said, “There has not been a mixed message to officials.”

No? Last season, they were told to call everything that resembled obstruction. This season, they were told not to make marginal calls, which leaves the problem of one man’s marginal being another man’s sure penalty. Choose a path and stay there, that’s all anyone asks.

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Bettman, who on Feb. 1 will celebrate his fourth anniversary in office, has made the NHL a stronger, more business-savvy operation. He has generated revenue to compensate for the lack of the huge TV deals other major sports have. But in denying the NHL’s problems, he’s insulting those who have watched it since the days before pucks glowed and sprouted red tails.

Perhaps he should look at the quality of play as a marketing exercise. Fans will pay premium prices for what they perceive as a quality product--more skill and less clutching and grabbing. More attention must be paid to improving the game than to creating “entertainment experiences.”

IT’S FINE WITH THEM

The NHL has issued a directive reminding players and coaches that those who criticize officials are subject to a unsportsmanlike conduct penalties, misconducts or fines.

That, after Detroit Coach Scotty Bowman was fined $10,000 for criticizing Terry Gregson’s alleged unfair treatment of the Red Wings’ Russian players, and New York Ranger center Mark Messier was fined $1,000 for saying referee Don Van Massenhoven had a “personal vendetta” against the Rangers. In each case, the fine was the maximum permitted.

According to Bryan Lewis, the NHL’s director of officiating, the letter was “a gentle reminder” to reinforce existing rules. Whether the complaints--or other critics’ comments--had merit is another issue.

Lewis said he’s generally satisfied with the level of officiating, but added, “I’d be hypocritical to say we don’t have problems.”

At least he’s taking action by having a one-on-one session with an official he feels is struggling--but wouldn’t identify--and constantly reviewing game tapes.

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Bowman is still steamed over being fined more than Messier was for the same offense.

“The next time I want to criticize a referee, I’ll give 10 of my players $1,000 each and get them to do it,” he said.

PAGING COWBOY BILL FLETT

To commemorate their 30th season in the NHL, the Kings have invited about 200 of their former players back March 13-15 to participate in an anniversary weekend. Invitations have been sent to players who appeared in 50 or more games with the team.

Scheduled activities include a black-tie dinner to benefit Kings Care, the club’s charitable foundation; autograph sessions and memorabilia displays outside the Forum; contests to determine the biggest fan, based on the oldest or most memorabilia; and an alumni-celebrity game. In their game against Calgary on March 15, the Kings will wear replicas of their 1967 uniforms.

If only there were more memories to celebrate than the 1993 trip to the finals and the 1982 Miracle on Manchester.

RED WINGS PASS UP THE GREEN

The Detroit Red Wings decided not to wear a third jersey this season, even though they could have made a ton of merchandising money. Senior Vice President Jimmy Devellano said the club considered another design, but decided not to tamper with its traditional winged wheel.

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Thank you, Red Wings, for showing some respect for tradition. Too bad the New York Rangers lack that respect. They adopted third jerseys that feature the head of the Statue of Liberty on the front and are a new, darker blue. The jerseys look like cartoon pajamas.

TRADE TALKS

The Boston Bruins, fearful that Bill Ranford’s shoulder woes will linger and unhappy with Tim Cheveldae, asked the Detroit Red Wings about Mike Vernon. They supposedly offered right wing Rick Tocchet for Vernon and defenseman Anders Eriksson. Bowman has said Vernon isn’t available, but the Red Wings’ recent struggles might change his mind.

The Rangers supposedly want Tocchet too, to replace injured right wing Alexei Kovalev. They might settle for Vancouver’s Russ Courtnall or Pittsburgh’s Tomas Sandstrom, who is being widely shopped.

Toronto General Manager Cliff Fletcher, given an extra $750,000 by his bosses to get the Maple Leafs out of the West cellar, said no player is untouchable. Problem is, no one wants to touch any of the Leafs, other than Mats Sundin, Felix Potvin and Mathieu Schneider, whom he wouldn’t give up. The Penguins offered him Sandstrom, but he was deterred by Sandstrom’s age, 32.

Vancouver General Manager Pat Quinn is also under pressure to make a deal, but he doesn’t have much maneuvering room. He’d love to get rid of Alexander Mogilny, who recently urged the Canucks to get a playmaking center, but most general managers recoil at Mogilny’s outspokenness and lax work habits.

SLAP SHOTS

Penguin goalie Patrick Lalime’s 13-0-2 streak started too late for him to make the All-Star team, but his pads were in San Jose. Penguin goalie coach Gilles Meloche, playing in an old-timers’ game, wore the pads Lalime used before the NHL’s equipment crackdown. . . . Don’t be surprised if the St. Louis Blues trade defenseman Chris Pronger. Mike Keenan’s most controversial acquisition, he’s a target of constant boos because he hasn’t progressed much. There are whispers that before Keenan was fired, he was talking to the Kings about a deal involving Al MacInnis, but new St. Louis General Manager Ron Caron said forget it.

The Blues are not paying Keenan the $7-million balance on his contract. A legal battle is likely. . . . Gordie Howe scoffs at cries that the New Jersey Devils are ruining the game with their defensive style. “What New Jersey calls the neutral zone trap, that’s what we played in the old days,” Howe said.

Defenseman Michel Petit went to his ninth team last week when Philadelphia claimed him on waivers from Tampa Bay. That tied Brent Ashton’s NHL record of most teams played for. . . . The Chicago Blackhawks want more consistency and leadership from winger Eric Daze, who has slumped from 30 goals last season to nine, and center Alexei Zhamnov. “We’re very tired of the roller coaster ride with those two guys being up and down,” Coach Craig Hartsburg said. “If we’re going to be a good team, those two guys have to step up every night for us.”

Besides switching its weekly telecasts to Saturdays, Fox will show four games instead of six regional games. That makes for an extra telecast if the Kings or Ducks aren’t on Fox but are televising on their own.

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Their Cup Is Empty

As the NHL schedule resumed after the All-Star break, the Boston Bruins were out of a playoff spot, increasing the chances that defenseman Ray Bourque will eventually become the leader in games played without having won the Stanley Cup. Mike Gartner of Phoenix--which ranked seventh in the West--has played the most games of any active player without winning the Cup. Here’s the list:

Player: Games*

Harry Howell: 1,411

Norm Ullman: 1,410

Doug Mohns: 1,390

Dean Prentice: 1,378

Marcel Dionne: 1,348

**Mike Gartner: 1,336

Jean Ratelle: 1,281

**Ray Bourque: 1,259

Bill Gadsby: 1,248

Gilbert Perreault: 1,191

*--games played without winning Stanley Cup.

**--active


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