NHL headed for deep freeze if new image fails to score




This is the NHL's last chance to get it right.

Its last chance to restore the speed and skill that make hockey so compelling at its best, a level the game hasn't approached in more than a decade.

The NHL's last chance to mean something again in Chicago and New York and to give fans in Edmonton, Calgary, Nashville and every small market a reason to believe they have a chance to win the Stanley Cup.

It cannot waste this opportunity.

Not just because the price it paid to get a set of offense-friendly rules and a salary cap was the loss of the 2004-05 season, but because it won't get another chance to reinvent itself.

Fail to live up to its promises that games will feature more scoring and creativity - or fail to consistently enforce its ban of obstruction - and the NHL will have no integrity behind its new, retro-chic silver-shield logo. Fail to entertain or market the game in ways that will appeal to its core audience and lure new fans, and the NHL will wither and die.

It would deserve that fate if it can't capitalize on the precious chance it has been given.

"Eliminating obstruction is not just a point of emphasis. Now, our credibility hinges on delivering, and I think we will," said Brian Burke, general manager of the Mighty Ducks of Anaheim.

"I sense the appetite at the ownership level, the league level and the managers' level. Players will have to adapt."

The NHL has made similar promises before, only to cave in when club executives complained about the profusion of penalties.

It's impossible to teach players how to score but easy to teach defense; any team with a good goalie, a couple of decent defensemen and a few checking forwards could easily drag a superior team down to its level, and they did so with mind-numbing frequency.

"We have a game that can be so good, but we squashed it. We suffocated it," said former NHL goalie John Davidson, now a TV analyst.

A group of players, general managers and league executives, led by Detroit forward Brendan Shanahan, formulated a number of proposals designed to boost scoring. Many of their ideas were adopted, although it's not easy to predict their impact.

Allowing two-line passes hasn't resulted in a goal-scoring bonanza in Europe, where coaches long ago devised ways to defend it. And it makes little sense to limit the area in which goalies can handle the puck behind the net. Why punish players who have developed unique skills?

But there was, at least, universal acknowledgement that the game couldn't return in the same tedious form it had taken before the lockout. Coupled with the end of its longtime cable partnership with ESPN and the start of a new contract with OLN, the NHL was given a rare opportunity to change its image.

"I don't think we would have had a chance to sell our game the way it was stymied before," Davidson said.

"But people stood up and said, `Let's take a look at this and see what we can do.' "

Burke said he's excited about the rule changes and the league's alliance with OLN, which will telecast its first game on Wednesday.

First, the NHL must help itself. OLN, which employs Davidson, has said it will provide unique camera angles and interviews that will highlight players' personalities. That's nothing new; every network that has carried the NHL has come up with gimmicks that were cutting edge at the time, such as NBC's Peter Puck and Fox's glowing puck. Each of those networks dropped the NHL because of low ratings.

What makes its chances of success on OLN any better? Maybe nothing more than the NHL's realization it had to provide a product that's worth watching, one that's enhanced by hidden microphones and flashy graphics and not secondary to them.

"We can talk a lot about cameras and access," Davidson said, "but if the game on the ice isn't better, then it won't grow.

"Maybe I'm being a little optimistic, but I'd be very disappointed if the league doesn't stick to its stance [against obstruction]."

A few weeks ago, in a conference call with reporters, Ottawa forward Dany Heatley said he believed the NHL would keep its promise to open up the game.

"I think if it's not going to be this year, it's never going to happen," Heatley said. "I think it's now or never for everybody. We want to get the game going, get the game growing, and I think this is a big part of it."

It's also the last best chance for the NHL to thrive, not merely survive.

Helene Elliott writes for the Los Angeles Times.

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