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THE NHL / HELENE ELLIOTT

Hockey Still No. 4, But Not Panicked to Try Harder

June 11, 1996|Helene Elliott

MIAMI — Its TV ratings are still minuscule, compared with those of the NBA and NFL, and it may never improve its ranking as the fourth-most popular of the four major professional sports. But Commissioner Gary Bettman said he doesn't measure the NHL's progress against other sports.

"The league is at its most stable, from a team standpoint and ownership standpoint, at least in my tenure," Bettman said Monday, before the Colorado Avalanche won its first Stanley Cup by sweeping the Florida Panthers. "The issue is not whether or not we're in a horse race and whether our ratings are better than the other three major professional sports on TV. The issue is, are we growing? In five years we can look at it again, and if we continue to grow the way we are, I'll be happy.

"If we're maximizing the interest in the game and the fan base, it doesn't matter if we're catching anybody else. As long as we continue to move in the right direction, that's what we want."

That direction will include expansion at an unspecified date, although Bettman acknowledged, "It's closer than a year ago because our existing franchises are in better shape."

Bettman also said that, although the final series involves teams in Denver and Miami--not the league's biggest cities--the success of the Avalanche and Panthers will help the NHL spread the game's gospel.

"This demonstrates that with increased exposure, the fan base will increase," he said. "A year ago, a team didn't exist in Colorado. . . . A week ago, it had been suggested the [TV] networks would be less than thrilled because these teams are not in major markets. Matchups are matchups, and as long as good hockey is being played, that's what's important."

He's right. Having the Panthers and Avalanche in the final was a blessing for the NHL because they exemplify hockey's best qualities.

The Panthers made teamwork compensate for a lack of individual skill, playing with a selflessness that's all too rare in professional sports.

The Avalanche had world-class skill and, thanks to General Manager Pierre Lacroix's bold trades for Patrick Roy, Sandis Ozolinsh and Claude Lemieux, the right mixture of feistiness and heart.

COPYCATS

The Panthers' success has already influenced other teams.

During the finals, the Avalanche used the neutral-zone trap the Panthers and New Jersey Devils employed, according to Panther winger Scott Mellanby.

"Every team in the league does it," he said. "People write about us playing the trap the last two years, but look at them. They go into a 1-2-2 when they're protecting a one-goal lead. They're getting back and forcing teams into mistakes in the neutral zone."

Neil Smith, general manager of the New York Rangers, said last week that he'd like his team to occasionally play a neutral-zone trap.

"Our players and our coaches have to evaluate why a team like Florida could beat Pittsburgh and hold [Mario] Lemieux and [Jaromir] Jagr to two goals and knock [goalie] Ken Wregget back onto the bench and we couldn't do it," he said. "Florida worked their tails off against Pittsburgh, played a disciplined system and shut them down, and we obviously didn't . . .

"We've got to change our mentality, that we do need these kinds of players that Florida has and the game plan that allows the implementation of the New Jersey-Florida type of game."

Also, the San Jose Sharks were leaning toward hiring Brian Sutter, who had previous NHL head-coaching experience, to fill their coaching vacancy. However, after seeing Doug MacLean take the Panthers to the final in his first season, the Sharks chose Al Sims, an assistant with the Mighty Ducks.

HE'S REALLY NO. 1

Journalists are supposed to be impartial, but it's difficult not to root for Chris Phillips to succeed in the NHL.

Phillips, the top-rated prospect for the June 22 entry draft, has been his parents' caretaker for several years. His mother, Carol, contracted a virus that left her partially paralyzed when he was 10. And his father, Garth, became blind when Chris was 12. Chris, a sturdy 6-foot-2, 200-pound defenseman, delayed his hockey advancement a year so he could care for his folks while his older sister, Jennifer, attended college.

"Hockey was an escape for me, to get away from the hassles that went along with it," he said. "It was a lot of hard work. It was really a relief to get onto the ice. If I was mad or angry, I could take it out there."

Phillips, whose wrist shot and physical play have been lauded by scouts, didn't resent the burden he carried.

"I don't think I missed out on a lot of stuff," he said. "People say I act older, but I don't feel older. I still go out with my friends, go camping, shoot pool, stuff like that. All [the top prospects] missed out on stuff because of the sacrifices you have to make to play competitive hockey."

RAT ATTACK

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