Commissioner Gary Bettman talks about the health of the NHL during a news… (Luis Sinco / Los Angeles…)
A year ago, the NHL was a few weeks into the third labor stoppage of Commissioner Gary Bettman's reign and fans vowed they would never come back.
Now, it's all sunshine and blue skies for the league and a firmly entrenched Bettman.
A settlement in January that guaranteed labor peace for at least eight years -- and possibly 10 -- kick-started an intense, 48-game schedule. The 30 teams played to a cumulative 97% of capacity, with 16 teams selling out all 24 home games and 10 more playing to 90% or more of their arena capacity.
Teams played to 102.6% of capacity during the playoffs, which were capped by the Boston-Chicago Stanley Cup Final. TV ratings were robust. Over the summer, the league, players' association and international hockey officials agreed on a plan that will showcase NHL players' skills at the Sochi Olympics.
These are boom times for the NHL, whose 2013-14 season begins Tuesday. The lockout? A faint memory.
"We're grateful for the fan reaction and we take our fans very seriously," Bettman said last week after a news conference at Dodger Stadium to promote the Jan. 25 outdoor game there between the Kings and Ducks. "The fact of the matter is, all of the research indicates that hockey fans tend to be the most avid, the most loyal, the most intense of any fans in any sport. They love the game, as we all do, and we all hurt when we're not playing. And we all celebrate when we are."
Bettman said he prefers to look ahead at the NHL's bright future rather than looking back at the stalemate of a year ago. After changes in ownership of the Phoenix Coyotes, New Jersey Devils and Florida Panthers, he said, "The fact is the league is now on a more solid footing than it's ever been."
Never completely happy, even in good times, the NHL realigned its teams, altered its playoff format and tinkered with some rules. The fate of hybrid icing, tried during exhibition games, will be announced Monday after players' votes on it have been tallied.
The Eastern and Western conferences have each been carved into two divisions instead of three, and a wild-card playoff system will take effect for the first time. The top three teams in each division will qualify for the playoffs along with the two next-highest finishers in each conference.
The number of teams in each conference will be unbalanced, with 16 in the East and 14 in the West. That's not a first but it's still awkward, though it leaves room for expansion to balance things. The Detroit Red Wings and Columbus Blue Jackets moved from West to East and the Winnipeg Jets moved from East to West, which makes sense geographically.
One more cosmetic change: A minor penalty will be called on players who tuck their jerseys into the back of their pants. Good thing the NHL is clamping down on that horror.
Other changes are aimed at increasing scoring.
The bottom depth of the goal frame was reduced from 44 inches to 40, creating more room to set up plays behind the net and score on wraparounds. The junction where the crossbar meets the post will be closer to a 90-degree angle than before and the padding at the bottom will be clear instead of white to make it easier to follow the puck and see it during replays.
Goaltenders got new restrictions on the length of their pads, with shorter pads expected to increase the gap between goalies' legs, known as the five hole. Previously, a goalie's leg pads couldn't go higher on his leg than 55% of the distance between the center of his knee and his pelvis. Now it's no higher than 45% of that distance, a difference of about two inches for some goalies.
Jonathan Quick, the most valuable player in the Kings' 2012 Stanley Cup run, said shallower nets will require goaltenders to be alert.
"I think the two plays really where there is change -- not too much, it just gives forwards a little more room back there -- are shots off from the point," he said. "They kind of miss the net wide and come out the other side. I think there's more room for it to come directly out. So you've got to be kind of aware of that. ...
"That, and guys walking behind the net and trying to make those quick plays, like they're going back behind the net and then passing it back against the grain back out front. You have a little more room to make those passes."
One thing is clear: It's a lot more fun to debate five-holes and shallow nets than labor talks.