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NHL Faces Problems Ahead of Labor Deal

May 31, 2003

ANAHEIM, Calif. (AP) _ Television ratings, already the lowest of the major pro team sports, are reaching billiards-like levels.

Two teams went into bankruptcy this season, and goal scoring is flat-lining despite annual attempts to make the game more exciting and viewer-friendly.

Even those willing to pay $75 and more for seats are nodding off during neutral zone trap-filled games in which the few shots that get through are smothered by goalies so thickly padded they resemble a real-life Michelin man.

Oh, and this too _ the head of the players’ union is warning his members the sport might shut down for 18 months or more if a new labor deal isn’t reached next year.

All these problems, and you want to be the NHL commissioner for a day?

NHL commissioner Gary Bettman ceremonially delegated his duties to U.S. Army helicopter pilot Roger Farina as the Stanley Cup finals began Tuesday. Farina, of East Meadow, N.Y., is such a big hockey fan that two of his children were given middle names taken from former Islanders stars.

If Bettman was expecting Farina to tag along and stay quiet, he was wrong; Farina spoke up at the meetings he attended and voiced his concerns about the state of today’s game.

Bettman listed, nodded and took notes, then, a few hours later at his annual Stanley Cup news conference, spoke glowingly about all that is right with hockey: its passionate fans, the big local TV ratings it attracts during the playoffs and the slighter-than-slight uptick in goal scoring this season.

Hockey fans who read his comments must have wondered why Roger Farina was allowed to keep the job for only a day. Many of the NHL’s traditionalists may be in self-denial, but all signs indicate the league has problems, and they are many, and they aren’t likely to get addressed in the short term.

Hockey, much like baseball, is a sport in which many fans are devoted to their favorite team but are indifferent about watching other teams play. Even so, the NHL’s 0.7 playoff ratings on ESPN and 0.4 on ESPN2 are about the same as pro billiards and bass fishing. NASCAR gets about six times the viewers the NHL does; the NBA about five times as many.

Game 1 of the Devils-Mighty Ducks finals Tuesday drew a 1.4 rating on ESPN, less than half the 2.9 the popular Red Wings attracted for Game 1 against Carolina last year.

TV ratings are down appreciably even in hockey-loving Canada, where there are about five times as many viewers for playoff games as in the United States, a country roughly nine times as large.

Even a Stanley Cup finals matching teams from the two largest TV markets isn’t a big ratings draw locally; neither the Devils nor the Mighty Ducks is the most popular team in its market. And neither city ranks in the top 10 in hockey ratings; Minnesota’s 6.4 rating for ABC’s playoff telecasts is more than four times higher than Los Angeles’ 1.5.

Still, Bettman disagrees that hockey has become like soccer in that goal-scoring occurs only occasionally and should be celebrated wildly. He insists there’s nothing wrong with low-scoring games, as long as they are exciting.

``There’s nothing magic about an 8-1 game,″ he said. ``They (fans) want exciting games. They want close games, but they’re not looking for more goals for the sake of more goals. I’m not sure if the politically correct police ever said that the number of goals translates into how exciting a game is.″

Still, Bettman held out some faint hope for hockey fans that the league would at least consider a rules change that would almost guarantee an upswing in scoring: making the 6-foot wide and 4-foot high net bigger.

Of course, Ducks goaltender Jean-Sebastien Giguere and Devils goaltender Martin Brodeur immediately spoke out, saying such a change would alter the game so dramatically that all records would immediately become obsolete.

``I think the game’s fine right now,″ Giguere said.

No doubt Giguere might change his mind come contract time if the NHL doesn’t land a new TV contract similar to its soon-to-expire $600 million, five-year with ABC and ESPN.

Of making the net bigger, Bettman said, ``It probably will get discussed. Discussed, not necessarily implemented, not necessarily pursued at 100 miles per hour.″

That’s where hockey purists, and there are many in prominent positions among NHL teams, need not worry: nothing in the sport moves at that speed except for an Al MacInnis slap shot.

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