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Fishing in New Revenue Streams

Hockey: NHL hopes Olympic exposure will outweigh problems of condensed season created by 17-day gap in schedule.

September 24, 1997|HELENE ELLIOTT | TIMES STAFF WRITER

Showcasing its players in the Olympics was the obvious solution to two of the NHL's biggest problems.

Performing on the global stage, NHL stars would be seen by vast audiences, boosting the league's profile. The wider exposure, in turn, might generate revenue to help pay the ever-rising player salaries.

NHL executives wanted to do it. Needed to do it. The question, which they couldn't answer in time for the 1994 Games at Lillehammer, was how to pull it off with minimal disruption of the season and without alienating its core fans.

And so it was, in November of 1993, that Commissioner Gary Bettman suggested during lunch with Juan Antonio Samaranch, president of the International Olympic Committee, that the Olympic hockey tournament be moved from the Winter Games to the Summer Games.

"There was a very brief discussion," said Steve Solomon, senior vice president and chief operating officer of the NHL. "Juan indicated that wasn't going to happen on his watch. It would have been a major change in the Olympic charter."

After much haggling among the NHL, its players' union and the International Ice Hockey Federation, an agreement was reached on a unique but risky plan. The NHL will suspend operations from Feb. 8 through Feb. 24 while players represent their homelands at Nagano, Japan.

To keep the hiatus to a minimum, Canada, the U.S., Sweden, Finland, the Czech Republic and Russia--the top-seeded Olympic teams and top suppliers of NHL players--were given berths in the championship round. A preliminary round, which will start Feb. 7, will yield the last two qualifiers.

The NHL schedule also was reconfigured to accommodate breaks for Christmas, the All-Star game and the Olympics without shortening the season. Training camps were cut, the season opener was moved up a few days to Oct. 1 and the finale was delayed six days, until April 19.

The hiatus of 17 days--seven more than the NHL wanted and four fewer than the NHL Players Assn. proposed--leaves 1,066 games to be played over 178 days, eight fewer days than last season. Teams will play every 2.15 days, compared to every 2.36 days last season.

That works out to one extra game every seven weeks. Not a huge difference, but even that increase--combined with a quirky schedule spawned by the breaks--has created a perception among players and coaches that the season is too condensed. They fear fatigue, injuries and poor play will be unhappy results of this well-intentioned venture.

"When you're really tired and playing a lot, maybe games are not so good as when you're fresh," said Mighty Duck right wing Teemu Selanne, who will play for Finland at Nagano. "That's why I worked so hard this summer to be in good shape from the start."

Detroit Red Wing center Steve Yzerman, a candidate for Team Canada, believes the travel to Japan, the intensity of the Olympics and the tight post-Olympic schedule will have cumulative adverse effects.

"I'd love to play, absolutely . . . but then I wouldn't," he told the Detroit News. "It's going to make it difficult on the guys who go over there. What we know here is that the Olympics don't carry the importance to this city that the Stanley Cup does. We need to make sure we're ready for the playoffs."

Solomon described the break's effect as "modest compression" of the schedule that would create "a limited increase in wear and tear on the players."

Try telling that to the Mighty Ducks, who open the season with games on consecutive nights in Japan next week and play back-to-back games 19 times, nine more than last season. Or the Philadelphia Flyers, who will play a club-record 17 games in March. Or the Edmonton Oilers, who return from the break to play 17 games in 34 days.

"It's just awful, the travel we've got to do," New Jersey Devil Coach Jacques Lemaire said. "In November, we have five days we can practice. Five days in the whole month. You get the main players tired, you won't have the same production. It will be tough. There will be more injuries because of the traveling, and the schedule is so dense."

Yet, most NHL personnel believe the benefits of Olympic participation will justify the inconveniences, whether real or merely perceived.

"I think the timing is right," King Coach Larry Robinson said. "Hockey has to try to take a jump, as far as its notability all over the world [is concerned]. I think we're still behind cart racing."

Ken Holland, general manager of the Red Wings, said his fear of increased injuries was outweighed by a conviction that the NHL must tap international markets and generate more interest in North America.

"We need our game to get a national TV contract," he said. "Certainly, everybody in the world watches the Olympics, and to have the best players in the world participating can only help us. It's a big world out there and a big marketplace. With players' salaries going as they have been--and where they appear to be headed--we've got to find more revenue streams."

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