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BIGGER: A record 30 teams; Record attendance; Scoring on rise; BETTER?: Violence still an issue; TV Ratings lag other sports; Labor unrest looms

Whether Success or Excess Is Used to Describe the NHL, One Thing Is Clear: It's a New Ice Age


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.

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