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NHL PREVIEW : Looking for a New Beginning

October 04, 1992|KEN RAPPOPORT | ASSOCIATED PRESS

A new star, new leadership and two new teams. And that's not all that's new as the NHL prepares for the 1992-93 season.

With new rules regarding fighting, among other things, the NHL has tried to tone down the violence and build up its image.

The idea is to make the game more attractive to borderline hockey fans--in other words, those that exist in most areas of the United States. That's the main object of acting president Gil Stein, whose stated goal is to make hockey the premier spectator sport in the U.S. before the turn of the century.

The NHL will need network television to make any kind of inroads, of course. Along with a new five-year contract signed with ESPN, the league hopes to put its product on one of the three major networks this season.

Not that ESPN is minor. The all-sports cable network reaches more than 60 million homes, about three times the fan base provided by SportsChannel America for the past four years.

Following the lead of the star-driven NBA, the NHL is gearing up for a campaign to sell its players to the public. And this is the year to do it, starting with Eric Lindros.

Lindros, the highly-touted center from the Canadian juniors, will make his long-awaited debut in the NHL. The NHL is counting on both his playing skills and media skills to provide some good PR for the league. They'll need it more than ever with the absence of Wayne Gretzky. Hockey's most famous player has been sidelined indefinitely with a bad back.

Lindros' arrival, though, has been anything but graceful. He snubbed the NHL last season when he sat out rather than play for the Quebec Nordiques, then became the center of controversy when Quebec traded him to two teams on the same day at June's NHL draft. He wound up with the Philadelphia Flyers, but it took a Solomon-like decision by an arbitrator to solve the issue.

Lindros not only got his wish to play with a U.S. team in a big market, but also a gaudy six-year, $20 million contract. Lindros may be happier that he waited a year to join the NHL, considering the new direction of the league.

Thanks to new leadership that includes Stein, who replaced John Ziegler until a commissioner could be appointed, the NHL has instituted rules changes that favor skill players over the violence-prone.

Most prominent of these is the automatic ejection of a player for instigating a fight. The NHL's board of governors stopped short of eliminating fighting--a staple of the league since it began in 1917. But it's clear in which direction the league is going in trying to soft-pedal its violence.

Stein, along with new chairman of the board of governors Bruce McNall, is pushing for a crackdown on high-sticking, hooking and interference--in short, anything that would interfere with the flow of the game.

Stein and Co. hope that attention to such details will allow the league's better skaters to show their style. They may also be showing their faces, with the dropping of the mandatory helmet rule.

The rule, which has been in effect since 1979, is being dropped because NHL owners say they believe it will reduce high-sticking infractions. Their belief is that players would be more careful with their sticks when facing a helmetless player.

No one expects the players to embrace the helmetless style in droves, though, because of the fear of head injuries. Currently, there are only five helmetless players in the league: Washington's Rod Langway, Winnipeg's Randy Carlyle, Ottawa's Brad Marsh, Edmonton's Craig McTavish and San Jose's Doug Wilson.

An unspoken by-product of the rule: players would be more recognizable without headgear. This would fit in with with the league's ambitious marketing plans.

While looking to the future, the NHL also will have to get two new teams off the ground this season: the Tampa Bay Lightning and Ottawa Senators.

It might not be as easy as it seems. Both are having trouble--Tampa Bay with selling tickets and Ottawa with financing its new arena. Survival of the Tampa Bay franchise is especially important to the NHL for more than one reason. It's the first time the NHL will have a team in the southern United States in 12 years and a key to its hope of a network television contract by showing that it is more than a regional league.

As it is, the NHL will really be spreading itself around the country this year with games in such places as Birmingham, Atlanta, Dallas, Oklahoma City and Miami. Under the agreement that settled the strike last spring, teams are going to an 84-game schedule this season, including two in neutral sites.

Lindros will make his debut in the Flyers' opening-night game Tuesday at Pittsburgh, home of the defending Stanley Cup champions.

The Penguins will be trying to win their third straight Cup. They feel they can become the NHL's next dynasty, matching the achievements of the New York Islanders and Edmonton Oilers in the '80s.

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