League popularity grows at speed of glacier On brink of new season, predictions remain unmet

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We're less than 15 months from the end of the millennium, and the National Hockey League still isn't the sport of the year, the decade, the century or even the moment.

Despite glowing predictions, glowing hopes for a marketing bounce from the Winter Olympics and even glowing pucks, the NHL remains fourth among the major team spectator sports played in North America.

Nothing that happened this summer is likely to change that anytime soon, but it doesn't mean the off-season was all bad. Along with a few other odds and ends, here's a look at some of what's happened off the ice since the Detroit Red Wings skated off with their second consecutive Stanley Cup five months ago:

Cashing in: Despite its puny and declining Nielsen ratings, the NHL capitalized on the grudge match between Disney and Fox with a five-year, $600-million television-rights deal that will put games on ABC beginning next season.

It's better than anything the league previously had, but trifling by the standards set by baseball, the NBA and, particularly, the NFL. With the average NHL salary well above $1 million and 30 teams dividing the loot within a couple of years, it's easy to see $600 million doesn't buy what it used to.

Coming soon: The $600 million loge ticket.

Leaving soon (thankfully): Fox's glowing, vulcanized-rubber disk.

Sad farewell: The sport lost Pat LaFontaine, whose outstanding 15-year career was halted this summer by post-concussion syndrome.

What a waste. At 33, LaFontaine should have had a few good years remaining. The collision with a teammate that ended his career could not be avoided. The cheap shot by Pittsburgh defenseman Francois Leroux that began LaFontaine's problems could and should have been.

Hockey cannot afford to prematurely lose players such as LaFontaine and Mario Lemieux, who retired a year ago at 31.

Fortunately, Mighty Ducks star Paul Kariya -- hockey's most exciting player -- didn't call it quits after his concussion last year.

Launching pad: Spurred into action because the man it is honoring has stomach cancer, the NHL announced in June it will issue the Maurice "Rocket" Richard Award to this year's leading goal scorer.

Had the league issued the award last season, it would have been shared by Teemu Selanne of the Ducks and Washington's Peter Bondra, each of whom scored 52 goals.

Selanne or Kariya may well win it this year, putting a Disney imprint on an award named after a hallowed member of the Montreal Canadiens, hockey's New York Yankees.

It's a sign of the times and, for hockey purists, one more small step away from the good old days of the six-team league.

Remember these names: The new coaches this year are Craig Hartsburg (Ducks), Dirk Graham (Chicago), Bob Hartley (Colorado), Terry Murray (Florida), Barry Trotz (expansion Nashville), ex-Kings coach Robbie Ftorek (New Jersey) and ex-Kings coach Pat Quinn (Toronto).

After Detroit's Scotty Bowman and Edmonton's Ron Low, the Kings' Larry Robinson is third in tenure with his current team, and he's only entering his fourth year.

Best story: The return of Tampa Bay center John Cullen after a bout with non-Hodgkin's lymphoma. After lengthy chemotherapy, he's been deemed cancer-free. Even if he doesn't play in another game, call this comeback a success.

Rules of the game: The NHL has tested the two-referee system during the exhibition season, and each team will play 20 games with two referees during the regular season.

If exhibitions have been any indication, it appears to be a change for the better, with nonsensical, behind-the-play mischief now under much closer scrutiny. The much-feared procession to the penalty box has yet to materialize.

Also, in an effort to open up the game offensively, the goal line has been moved two feet farther from the end boards to 13, adding more maneuvering room; the size of the neutral zone has been accordingly reduced.

Will all the changes add up to a dramatic increase in scoring? Probably not. But that doesn't mean the changes aren't worth a try, and too much scoring would be just as unattractive as not enough.

Old faces, new places: The biggest name to change uniforms during the summer was right wing Brett Hull, who left St. Louis to sign as a free agent with Dallas.

Chicago, rumored to be pursuing Hull, instead added New Jersey's Doug Gilmour and Philadelphia's Paul Coffey. Toronto added goalie Curtis Joseph and Philadelphia signed goalie John Vanbiesbrouck.

Same old story: The Red Wings remain the class of the league. They may not win the regular-season crown, but when it matters in April, May and June, they'll be the team to beat.

Even the occasionally shaky goaltending of Chris Osgood couldn't derail the Red Wings last season. No team can match their depth.

Detroit could make it three Stanley Cups in a row. In a hockey era of short-lived powers, it looks like a dynasty.

Pub Date: 10/09/98

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