Scoring is up, TV ratings are up, attendance is up, fighting is down. Players are faster, stronger, fitter, coming from all over the globe. Coaches are smarter, better prepared, and more capable. Teams are more competitive from top to bottom.
So this is the NHL today, 30 teams strong, hunkered down in almost every major city in North America, thriving by many accounts.
Games are dull and tedious affairs. The season is interminable, an 82-game death march. Goals are ugly. Injuries cut short the careers of too many players. Violence is a turnoff to many potential fans.
This also is the NHL today, 30 look-alike teams run by owners more interested in the bottom line than winning, a game steaming toward oblivion because of its own greed and stupidity.
After a decade of remarkable growth, the NHL is bigger, richer, more diverse and exposed to many more people on the planet than in 1990. This much cannot be debated.
But is the game better? Perhaps.
Is it different? Without question.
“The league is the strongest it’s ever been,” said Gary Bettman, NHL commissioner since Feb. 1, 1993. “Our ownership is the strongest it’s ever been. Our footprint is the biggest it’s ever been. All our vital signs are quite good.”
Nowhere does that appear more evident than at jam-packed arenas around the league. Almost all of the 30 teams are playing in a sparkling new
palace or have one in the works. There are grand lob-
bies in many arenas, posh suites, state-of-the-art video and sound systems in almost all rinks.
League attendance climbed to a record total of 18.8 million last season, up almost 800,000 over 1998-99. What’s more, attendance increased by more than 6 million since 1989-90. Of course, there also were seven more teams (now nine with the addition of Minnesota and Columbus this season) than a decade ago, so that last figure is a bit deceiving.
“It’s a testament to the strength of our game,” Bettman said. “The 1990s have shown with new, modern arenas, people will go to the games anywhere. We do well wherever we have teams.”
There are still more mixed signs Bettman uses to support claims of a strongest NHL ever.
Television ratings rose 22% during the first season of the league’s new contract with ABC. Ratings were up on cable as well, gaining 4% on ESPN and 8% on Canada’s CTV Sports Net. Ratings even rose 3% on “Hockey Night in Canada” telecasts, the Great White North’s version of “Monday Night Football.”
Those numbers also are deceiving. For instance, the deciding Game 6 of the Stanley Cup finals last June attracted a 4.2 national rating (each rating share equals 1.008 million households), the highest in 20 years. The typical “Monday Night Football” telecast on ABC gets ratings closer to 15.0.
“If you compare us to football, you’ve got us,” Bettman admitted. "[But] we think we’re off to a great start with ABC and ESPN. The perception we want to create is we’ve got the best sport. Give us a chance and you’ll see. The fact is our sport is growing. It’s a great sport with great players. We’re in great shape.”
Money is always an issue in any professional sport and hockey is no exception.
However, payroll inflation was largely held in check last season, climbing only 5%, according to a league source. The forecast for this season is for growth of even less than that, encouraging news for owners and general managers bracing for an anticipated brawl with the players union when the current collective bargaining agreement ends in 2004.
Already the battle lines are being drawn. When Pierre Gauthier, team president and general manager of the Ducks, was asked recently to list what was right with the league, he went on and on, touching on a number of subjects. When he was asked what was wrong, he said flatly, “The NHLPA [the players union].”
Closing the payroll gap between the wealthy and poor teams is a major concern for the league, which failed to secure a salary cap during the last CBA fight in 1994. The NHL cannot stomach a situation similar to that of major league baseball, one in which wealthy teams outspend their poorer rivals to defeat them on the field season after season.
“Making sure the game is on firm financial footing really is our No. 1 priority,” Bettman said.
So far, unlike baseball, higher payrolls haven’t necessarily guaranteed success on the ice. Three teams in the top 10 spenders failed to make the playoffs last season, including the New York Rangers with a league-leading $60-million payroll. The New Jersey Devils, who had the 15th-highest payroll at $31 million, won the Stanley Cup championship over the Dallas Stars, who were No. 4 at $42 million.
There is more to the game’s continued good health, however. In most regards expansion has been good for the NHL, which in the 1990s tapped into new markets in order to reach new fans with money to spend.
Expansion hasn’t been good in other sports, particularly the NBA, which went from high-flying action in the 1980s to defensive-oriented tedium in the ‘90s because the talent pool had been exhausted by the addition of new teams. Baseball continues to suffer from a lack of quality pitchers traced directly to expansion in the last decade.
Hockey is another story.
The end of communism in Eastern Europe in the ‘90s opened the door for a flood of imports to join the NHL. There had been Swedes and Finns for several decades, but within the last 10 years, players from the former Soviet Union and other Eastern European countries joined them in huge numbers.
Last season, the percentage of Canadian-born players on opening-night rosters dropped to an all-time low of 56%. It’s possible that could drop below 50% when statistics are compiled on this season’s opening-night rosters.
All of which underscores why expansion has been successful on the ice. Bettman and others argue that expansion did not simply coincide with the great European influx of players. It happened because of it.
“Since the Eastern Bloc barriers fell, the players are coming over younger now,” Gauthier said. “They have helped the league stay balanced. There are other dynamics, but expansion came about at the right time because of the influx of European players. We’ve been able to keep the caliber of play high and maintain balance in the league because of them.”
Despite a decline in national identity in the NHL, some Canadians believe the game is far better off because of the European influence, particularly in their offensive creativity.
“I’ll take Teemu Selanne’s shirt-flapping speed any time,” said Steve Dryden, editor-in-chief of the Hockey News, referring to the Duck right wing nicknamed “the Finnish Flash.”
"[The European influence] seems even more pronounced this year. I think it’s a great thing,” Dryden said. “People [in the NHL] have become more imaginative and more open-minded and are giving these players a chance.”
European players such as Selanne, the Kings’ Ziggy Palffy, Pittsburgh’s Jaromir Jagr and Florida’s Pavel Bure are among the NHL’s flashiest, most exciting offensive players.
“The Hockey News has argued for years against xenophobia,” Dryden said. “Chicago and St. Louis come to mind as being slow to change.”
In order to compete, those teams have embraced European players in recent seasons. In fact, St. Louis last season had an entire forward line comprising players from Slovakia.
“Diversity is a strength of this game,” Bettman said. “We’re a melting pot like no other sport.”
It also doesn’t hurt marketing efforts in Finland to have Selanne among the league’s leading scorers each season. Moving the game further onto a global stage is one of Bettman’s goals, which is why the NHL will again send its players to the Olympics in 2002. It’s why the Penguins and Nashville Predators will kick off their seasons with games Friday and Saturday in the new Saitama Super Arena in suburban Tokyo. And it’s why the Vancouver Canucks opened their training camp in Stockholm and participated in a three-day tournament playing exhibitions last month against Swedish club teams.
Meanwhile, back at home, the game is far from flawless.
The league continues to tinker with rules in order to increase scoring, which dipped during the defensive-oriented ‘90s but rebounded last season.
Last season’s change to a four-on-four format during overtime certainly was exciting. It also resulted in 115 games being decided in 261 overtime games, up from 60 decisions in 222 overtime games in 1998-99.
Perhaps as a result, scoring rose from 5.3 goals a game in 1998-99 to 5.5 last season. Nineteen of 27 teams scored more goals than the previous season.
And there are new efforts by referees this season to curb minor slashing infractions in an attempt to free skilled players to score more goals.
Last season, penalty minutes declined to 28.1 a game from 32.1 in 1998-99. Fighting majors dropped 13% and 31% from the two previous seasons. Nearly 64% of last season’s games were played without a fight.
But bragging about curbing violence is pointless when you consider Marty McSorley spent last week facing a judge in a Vancouver courtroom, defending himself on assault charges stemming from a Feb. 21 slash to the head of Donald Brashear. The NHL suspended McSorley for 23 games, a record for an on-ice incident. He could face a year and a half in prison if convicted by the judge, who will announce his decision Friday.
Curbing injuries is another matter high on the league’s priority list. Last month, a panel of players, coaches, general managers, team doctors, athletic trainers and others met in Toronto. Their mission was to begin looking into ways to significantly reduce the numbers of injuries.
“A lot of good ideas were discussed,” said Duck winger Paul Kariya, a member of the panel and one of a number of standout players whose careers have been threatened by serious concussions.
“The main thing is to try to stop injuries. I think it’s a really good idea. It’s important to do something about it and not just talk about it. We have to cut out the hitting from behind, the stick work and the shots to the head. In the course of the game, guys are going to be injured. But we can cut out the other stuff.”
The irony here is that Kariya, a champion of fair play during his career, was suspended for an exhibition game after a slashing incident Friday against the expansion Minnesota Wild.
On the subject of injuries, Bettman said, “We want our best players on the ice playing. That’s what makes our game compelling. Injuries are not out of control. Our concern is in reducing them.”
“Each sport has its issues,” Bettman added. “We’ve made great strides. We have fewer issues than we used to have.”