Bettman puts some heat on frosty image of NHL Commissioner expand horizons

April 15, 1993|By Ian Johnson | Ian Johnson,New York Bureau

NEW YORK -- Just a skyscraper away from his old haunt at the NBA, Gary Bettman's new office is a reflection of the hockey league he now runs. While the halls leading to it still are adorned with pictures of hockey's past greats, his walls are empty, awaiting the imprimatur of a new boss leading an ostensibly new league.

But don't blame Bettman for not having time to decorate. Life for the 40-year-old lawyer has changed radically since he took over as NHL commissioner Feb. 1. He may now have a league of his own -- he was third-in-command of the phenomenally successful NBA -- but is working for a troubled league that stands at the crossroads of regional obscurity and international importance.

After years of proclaiming that this time it really means business, the 76-year-old NHL once again is announcing its entry into the big leagues -- and even has some proof to back up this claim.

For example, hockey is back on a major cable network after a four-year hiatus. Broadcasts on ESPN started last fall and the playoffs will be on ABC starting this weekend.

Besides the visibility, the quality of the game also seems to be improving. Fighting has been curbed through new rules, and European players are bringing a faster, more fluid style of play.

This influx of talent, much of it from former communist countries in Eastern Europe that were inaccessible a few years ago, has allowed the league to expand without the level of play dropping off much.

Just as important is that the level of expansion owners has improved, with the newest teams owned by the Walt Disney Co. and Blockbuster Entertainment Corp. -- two national entertainment companies whose decision to get into hockey would seem to vouch for its long-term prospects. They also will help the league expand into the Sun Belt.

And, most recently, the league decided to rename and reorganize its divisions and revamp its playoff schedule next season, all with the goal of making the league's structure easier to understand for casual fans. The result: geographically organized divisions where teams travel less and fans can watch more teams from neighboring cities.

"We're trying to create new rivalries and make the league more understandable," said Bettman.

Despite the advances, the challenges facing the NHL are formidable, and many are decades old:

* Making the game more accessible to television viewers. A sport that can thrill when seen in person, hockey and its miniscule puck can appear unfathomable on screen.

* Proving a sport can thrive in regions where people don't play it. For all the hoopla surrounding the Sun Belt teams, hockey is only popular in the South in large urban areas where nostalgic snowbirds gather.

* Resolving the debate about whether fighting helps or hurts the game's attraction. While some fans come for the fisticuffs, many more are turned off by the bloody noses -- and the bloodthirsty fans.

* Making franchise location and ownership more stable. After this season, the Minnesota North Stars will move to Dallas. The Edmonton Oilers and Hartford Whalers also have talked about relocating.

* Ending the cabal of old-guard owners that has stifled change.

Most importantly, hockey has yet to prove that there is room in North America for a fourth major sport after football, baseball and basketball. Although the NBA's success over the past 15 years in rising to become the third top sport leaves room for hope, some analysts wonder if the sports world can support another league.

"With hockey, you have to be realistic," said Marty Blackman, a sports marketing consultant. "Too many people are saying hockey is going to beat out basketball or baseball. The main thing is to make hockey stronger than it is."

That probably means that hockey never will be a major national sport, Blackman said, if only because of its seasonal nature and regional appeal. Although any city can build an ice rink, a sport's broader appeal requires that local children play the game, he said.

Marketing experts also share the view that local participation is crucial. Gerri Shaftel, vice president of Celebrity Endorsement Network, said unless kids play or identify with a sport, they are unlikely to buy the lucrative spinoff products and watch it on television.

"It's a game with few stars," Shaftel said. "Outside of [Los Angeles Kings center Wayne] Gretzky, few people know hockey players."

The NHL's record on ESPN seems to back this up. Its rating has been 0.9, which Bettman points out does mean that 650,000 homes are tuned in, but still puts hockey below sports such as golf.

To help improve the sport's accessibility, the league is experimenting with a puck that appears fluorescent orange when seen on the television, but which looks the usual flat black for players and fans in the arena.

However Bettman ends up addressing such challenges, the league already has received high marks for hiring him. His quick endorsement of Disney's franchise -- and even its name, the Mighty Ducks, after a Disney movie -- was viewed as a shift away from the league's stodginess.

"Look, you have to remember that hockey is basically a foreign game that most of us weren't raised to play," said Blackman, the sports marketing consultant. "Not everything appeals to a mass audience. Whether hockey will is a question that hasn't been answered yet."

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