SPORTS

NHL in the sunshine

Main events are set to begin, on and off the ice

JAMES DEACON April 25 1994
SPORTS

NHL in the sunshine

Main events are set to begin, on and off the ice

JAMES DEACON April 25 1994

NHL in the sunshine

SPORTS

Main events are set to begin, on and off the ice

JAMES DEACON

Gary Bettman was tired, with good reason. The 41-year-old New Yorker, who has been commissioner of the National Hockey League for a little more than a year, was in Tampa, Fla., for meetings last week after an overnight flight from Vancouver. But instead of going to bed, he was heading to see the Tampa Bay Lightning play the New York Islanders. Hockey games remind him that, usual troubles aside, the sport is thriving. The Lightning, for instance, finished the season well below .500, did not make the playoffs—and still drew an NHL record average 20,421 fans per game to the Thunder Dome. “It’s 90 degrees in Tampa,” Bettman said, “and there will be more than 20,000 people watching hockey.”

the New York Rangers, is again raising hopes of the first Stanley Cup on Broadway in 54 years. Led by centre Mark Messier and defenceman Brian Leetch, the Rangers have depth, scoring and toughness. They will need all of that just to advance from the Eastern Conference, which includes the defending champion Montreal Canadiens, Mario Lemieux’s Pittsburgh Penguins and the surprising New Jersey Devils, who have blossomed into contenders under first-year coach Jacques Lemaire.

The Western Conference out,Jook is even murkier. The Detroit “Red Wings finished atop the con|ference standings and boast the ^dynamic duo of Steve Yzerman Band Sergei Fedorov. The Toronto « Maple Leafs, last year’s playoff ^Cinderella, will again pin their uhopes on scrappy centre Doug Gilmour and goaltender Felix Potvin. The sleepers may be the Calgary Flames—captain Joe Nieuwendyk has recovered from a knee injury, and the team has improved under coach Dave King.

As fans settle in for the playoffs, they can be reasonably assured that the two-month marathon will not be interrupted by labor strife. Bettman and Bob Goodenow, executive director of the NHL players’ association, have kept a lid on their negotiations. “I am the only person authorized to speak for the owners,” Bettman assured. The players, meanwhile, are ready to give the two chief negotiators time to work things out, said Toronto winger Mike Gartner, president of the players’ association. ‘We have been pursuing our goals through collective bargaining,” Gartner said. We do not, at this time, think that a strike is necessary.”

The contentious issue is player salaries, which have dramatically increased to an average of $525,000 this season from $276,000 in 1990. The owners say that exploding payrolls put NHL hockey, already a shaky proposition in small markets, on the endangered species list in cities such as Hartford, Conn., Quebec City, Winnipeg and Edmonton. As a result, the league’s governors want any new agreement to include cost-controls. “We have not asked for a salary cap,” Bettman said. “We want a system that enables all teams to be competitive and one that links salaries to revenues and works for both the players and the owners.” The players, in turn, want to loosen the restrictions on free agency—something the owners say would increase salaries. Only after bridging that gap can Bettman get on with capitalizing on the game’s increased popularity. We have marketing and business plans in hand, and we are ready to move forward,” he said, “but we still have the biggie to get done.”

As the playoffs began this week, Bettman had good reason to be upbeat about the NHL in general and the 1993-1994 season in particular. Fans flocked to see new franchises in Miami and Anaheim, Calif. Compared with recent years, more NHL games appeared on U.S. network and cable television; nearly every TV sportscast in North America showed Wayne Gretzky overtaking Gordie Howe’s career goals record in March. And although the collective agreement between the NHL and its players expired last fall, leaving the players in position to strike, the negotiators have so far eschewed the sort of incendiary rhetoric that led to the playoff-delaying walkout of 1992. “It’s a little early to make a brash statement on how Mr. Bettman has done as commissioner,” said Toronto Maple Leafs president Cliff

Fletcher. “But the consensus seems to be that he has done a good job.”

On the ice, the regular season was a competitive, if not artistic, success. Despite the addition of two more teams—the fourth and fifth expansion franchises to join the league in three years—the only real pushovers were the two-year-old Ottawa Senators. The rookie Florida Panthers and Anaheim Mighty Ducks unexpectedly contended for playoff spots until the final weeks of the season. And their often lacklustre, defensive style of play failed to stem the ardor of newfound fans. In fact, in all five sunbelt cities in which the NHL and the National Basketball Association go head-to-head—Miami, Dallas, Anaheim, Los Angeles and San Jose, Calif.—hockey drew more fans per game.

The top-rated team going into the playoffs,