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THE NHL / STEVE SPRINGER : This League Could Improve Its Package

December 25, 1991|STEVE SPRINGER

In this holiday season, gifts seem to keep on coming as long as credit cards keep working.

There are presents big and small, fat and tall--video games for the kids, golf clubs for Dad, an exercise bike for Mom, a car phone for Sis, that loud tie for Uncle Rick and perfume for Aunt Edie.

But in the last-minute rush and crush of mall mania, nobody ever thinks about the NHL.

The NHL?

That's right. A league deserves gifts, same as everyone else.

So we're going to give it what it desperately needs: good advice.

It's time the NHL shucked its little-brother image in the pro sports family and took its place among the big guys--the NBA, NFL and major league baseball.

Don't laugh. About a decade ago, the NBA was in such bad shape it was threatening to merge several teams. Look what happened.

Here are five items, suitably gift-wrapped, that would enable the NHL to grow quickly and dramatically:

--A new collective bargaining agreement. The old one expired in September, and the progress toward a replacement has been excruciatingly slow.

Yes, each side has its arguments. The owners can point to a dramatic rise in salaries as players join the ranks of the millionaires almost weekly.

And the players can legitimately push for true free agency without all the strings attached and a substantial chunk of the playoff pie.

The debate has also been fierce over the pension plan.

But if these arguments sound familiar, it's because they have been heard before in almost every other sport.

The NBA bought peace with a then-radical revenue-sharing plan and salary cap.

Baseball and football took a rougher route, enduring bitter strikes that cost them dearly in money and popularity before coming to terms.

Maybe revenue sharing is the answer for the NHL. A strike certainly isn't.

Embittered and gloomy over the recession gripping North America, hockey fans won't stand for millionaires going on strike.

And the league couldn't stand a major lost of public favor.

The owners and players are going to come to an agreement at some point on these issues.

Why not now? Whatever may be lost by either side pales in comparison to what will be lost without an agreement.

--A ban on fighting. It's an old suggestion, but never more relevant.

Until it happens, the league will stay as it is: Appealing to a small hard-core crowd that loves the fighting while a vast, untapped group abhors it.

In an episode of the old comedy, "Taxi," one of the characters takes his son to a hockey game.

"How was it," the son is asked.

"Too much skating between the fights," he replies.

Funny, but true.

Until the fighting stops, the NHL will continue to have a split image, a professional league of top superstars tainted by characters better suited for pro wrestling or roller derby.

This is certainly not an appeal to make hockey a noncontact sport. Or to curtail the hard, exciting body checks that are an integral part of the game.

Nor is high-sticking the major concern. The league has already taken steps on that offense.

No, the big problem is the ritualistic fighting, those ridiculous moments when the action stops and two thugs drop their sticks and gloves, pull one another's sweaters over their heads and skate around like two bucks with their antlers locked.

What is the appeal? In a sport like baseball, a fight growing out of a beaning incident comes from raw emotion, can involve anybody and everybody and is memorable for its uniqueness.

In hockey, everybody knows who the fighters are before the game starts. Their confrontations--premeditated, predictable in form and lacking in style--have little or nothing to do with their teams or the game.

They are like old-fashioned gunslingers, trying to prove they are faster and more deadly than the new guy in town.

Maybe they could perform between periods, right after the mascots' acts and before the hit-the-net, win-a-car contest.

--Keep getting new teams. Some question whether there is enough talent to keep expanding the league, which added one team this season and will welcome two more next season.

Normally, the answer would be no. But these are not normal times. The Iron Curtain has fallen, Eastern Europe is free of Soviet domination and the Soviet Union has ceased to exist.

A generation of players could come streaming out in the next few years.

The NHL should take advantage of that talent to make itself truly a national league by moving into the Sun Belt, the area where it still lacks a presence.

The NHL in Texas or Arizona or the Deep South? Why not? It's no more unlikely than hockey in San Jose. Or Los Angeles.

--A national television contract. The NHL cannot make itself heard until it is seen. Everywhere.

Network executives haven't exactly come running, hands full of money, to sign up this hot property.

But much of that is because of the problems mentioned previously.

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