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The Inside Track | Mike Penner / SOUND AND VISION

NHL Caught in a Trap That It Made for Itself

October 08, 2003|Mike Penner

Has it really been 10 years since the puck first dropped at the Pond and Wild Wing first descended from the rafters and grown men dressed in eggplant and jade with Donald Duck on their jerseys made "Disney on Ice" a tangible, if head-shaking, NHL concept?

Has it been only 10 years since Wayne Gretzky led the defending Western Conference champion Kings back on the ice, fully intending to take care of unfinished business: Bring the Stanley Cup to Los Angeles and make Bruce McNall more popular in Hollywood than Arnold Schwarzenegger?

Ten years ago today -- Oct. 8, 1993 -- the Mighty Ducks of Anaheim played their first regular-season game. Defenseman Sean Hill scored the first goal in franchise history, Sergei Fedorov skated for the opposition, Detroit welcomed Disney into the no-nonsense world of professional hockey with a 7-2 Duck defeat.

At the same time, the Kings were a few months removed from their first appearance in the Stanley Cup finals. They'd lost to Montreal in the 1993 finals, but now Gretzky was back without an aching back, Barry Melrose's mullet insulated the brightest young coaching mind in the league and Marty McSorley could recite the NHL's stick-curvature rule forward and backward. What could possibly stop them?

It was the high-water mark for hockey in this area, and maybe in the league.

Gary Bettman, reared on the NBA's marketing savvy, was beginning his first full season as commissioner. He brought Anaheim and Florida into the league, and with them, the corporate clout of Disney and Blockbuster. Gretzky was closing in on Gordie Howe's goals record. Mario Lemieux, Brett Hull, Pavel Bure and Adam Oates were at the peak of their powers, or close to it.

Hockey was hot. Hockey was a boom sport. Hockey was headed for the Sun Belt -- before the end of the decade there would be teams in Nashville, Atlanta and Phoenix.

Hockey's future was so bright, fans in L.A. and Anaheim had to wear shades.

Ten years on, those Ray-Bans are out of style. And so, in a country now obsessed with fantasy football and stock cars, is the NHL.

Disney is still trying to unload the Ducks, even after last season's surprising playoff run. Disney owns the league's television rights, but for how much longer? The current TV contract expires after this season -- and ABC needed a magnifying glass to read last season's ratings.

Along with the TV contract, the league's collective bargaining agreement lapses in 2004. The prospect of a long, bitter work stoppage hangs over tonight's 2003-04 openers, beginning a season that carries the subtitle, "The End of the NHL as We Know It?"

Actually, the face of the game already has been rearranged, which is part of the problem. In 1993-94, the Ducks' dump-and-chase, neutral-zone-trapping style was dismissed as a desperate tactic deployed by an ugly duckling expansion team scraping to survive against the back-and-forth high fliers in Detroit, Pittsburgh, New York and up the freeway. An unsightly aberration that would no doubt pass once the Ducks got a few drafts under their belts.

Today, it's the NHL gospel. Defense dominated last season's playoffs, producing a Stanley Cup finals matchup indicative of the league's luck of late: New Jersey versus Anaheim. Almost New York against almost L.A.

The Devils and the Ducks have their pockets of rabid support, but across the country, neutral fans weren't pointing at their TVs and shouting, "Look at this! New Jersey's trap is better than Anaheim's trap!"

Goal scorers are no longer the biggest stars in the NHL. Now it's the goal stoppers. Martin Brodeur. Jean-Sebastien Giguere. Dominik Hasek, back for yet another comeback.

Great. These are the top performers in hockey, the faces the league wants more people to know -- and they bury them behind barbecue-grill masks and pads the size of sofa cushions.

Although, the sofa cushions will be slightly smaller this season. In an attempt to beef up scoring, the league decided in the off-season to limit the height of goalie leg pads to 38 inches. You can call it "the Jiggy rule." Or you can call it a Band-Aid on a broken leg. The NHL had the solution under its nose in Salt Lake City in 2002. Widen the ice. Adopt the international rules. Go Olympic.

Instead, they're slightly shrinking leg pads.

Along with that, they're resorting to gimmicks. On Nov. 22, Montreal and Edmonton will play the NHL's first regular-season outdoor game at Edmonton's Commonwealth Stadium. Fans peering through the fog of their own chilly breath, listening to their teeth chatter as they try to follow the violence down below? Hey, it works for the NFL.

ESPN2, hoping to drum up more interest in its NHL telecasts, is asking fans to vote online for which game they'd rather see on seven dates during the season. Each voting period will last 10 to 14 days, and the first is underway: Which game would you rather watch on Oct. 29, St. Louis at Detroit or the New York Islanders at Pittsburgh?

The Ducks are on the ballot twice. The choice for Feb. 23 is Ducks-Coyotes or Red Wings-Oilers. The choice for March 3 is Wild-Ducks or Canucks-Avalanche.

Sign of the times: The Kings, whose 1988 trade for Gretzky led directly to the birth of the Ducks, are not on the ballot. Of course, ESPN2 and the Ducks are owned by Disney. Then again, the Kings did a lot of golfing last spring while the Ducks were grinding their way to the finals.

There's one gimmick the NHL hasn't tried, but might want to look into.

Consider the shape of the rink.

Consider the Zamboni.

Now consider this marketing slogan:

"We're Just Like NASCAR. Only Slower and Colder."

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