Return of NHL still not net gain

Attendance mixed despite more scoring

Penguins hold off Caps as top rookies face off

November 23, 2005|By CHILDS WALKER | CHILDS WALKER,SUN REPORTER

Hockey's reinvention of itself in the wake of a season lost to labor dispute seems to be working in many ways.

Scoring is up, both for teams and individual stars. Rookies Sidney Crosby and Alex Ovechkin, who met for the first time last night, appear as talented as the hype suggested. Attendance is up from 2003-04 in 23 of 30 NHL cities, and the league says it drew more fans than in any previous October.

"We are very, very pleased with the devotion our fans have shown us," NHL spokesman Frank Brown said.

And yet, not all is well, especially not in these parts. The NHL still can't get a national audience to watch on television in the United States. And attendance is lagging in some cities. Even with Ovechkin, the Washington Capitals are struggling to draw fans.

So the verdict is not in on how the NHL has endured the work stoppage that cost it the 2004-05 season.

Rule changes - tighter calling of penalties, smaller goalie pads, the acceptance of two-line passes - have certainly produced a more freewheeling game.

Ottawa is the top scoring team this season, same as in the 2003-04 season. But the Senators are averaging 4.6 goals a game compared with 3.2 that season. Those 3.2 goals a game would rank 12th in the NHL this season.

A dozen players are on pace to score 100 or more points. Martin St. Louis led the league with 94 in 2003-04. Ottawa's Daniel Alfredsson and Philadelphia's Simon Gagne are on goal-a-game paces, unheard of since the heyday of Wayne Gretzky and Mario Lemieux more than a decade ago.

"There is an element of just dynamic execution of the game that has not been evident, or at least not this evident, in a long time," Brown said.

Under the previous rules, said ESPN analyst John Buccigross, a lumbering defenseman could simply grab a shifty forward to break the offensive flow. It was the equivalent of NFL defensive backs being able to grab receivers or NBA defenders being able to bearhug Michael Jordan.

"It's really freed up the game in terms of the speed and seeing some great stick-handling," Buccigross said. "Crosby's a great example. Guys just would've grabbed and wrestled him under the old rules. He would've still been a great player, but he would've been prevented from becoming the icon he will be."

A skilled player can make an economic difference (attendance in Pittsburgh is up more than 4,000 a game in Crosby's first season).

The faster-paced, higher-scoring game has correlated with attendance increases across the league, though some figures aren't what they seem. Buccigross said he has been to alleged sellouts in Columbus and Detroit where many lower-bowl seats were empty.

Regardless, observers agree that the new labor agreement, which features the tightest salary cap in pro sports, will make more franchises financially stable.

"If you can't make it as an owner with this salary cap, it's either your fault or you're in a town that just can't support hockey," said Mike Ozanian, a senior editor at Forbes who recently completed his annual analysis of the game's financial state.

The healthiest franchises - the New York Rangers, Boston Bruins and Toronto Maple Leafs - are those that own their arenas and/or have lucrative regional cable contracts, he said.

Ozanian said that teams struggling with revenues or attendance after a few years under the new system might need to move or be contracted.

"What this season's really going to tell you is which fans have forgiven their teams and which cities are real hockey towns," he said.

He's skeptical that the game can survive in non-traditional hockey towns such as Raleigh, N.C., Atlanta and Miami.

But Brown said cities like that are the ones most likely to benefit from the new labor deal.

"I don't think there's any real pronouncement to be made on any markets after one quarter of our schedule has been played," he said. "The impact of the new system won't be in place for many years."

He also noted that the NHL has recovered attendance more quickly than Major League Baseball did after its last work stoppage in 1994 and 1995.

Buccigross said he hopes the league will remain patient with such cities, because the sport is still young in this country (there were only four U.S. teams as late as 1967).

"Grandfathers haven't been taking their grandsons to games in a lot of cities," he said.

Washington is one city where hockey has rarely been a big part of daily life.

Attendance is down more than 2,000 a game from 2003-04, and the Capitals rank last in the league. Some of that is easily understandable, because owner Ted Leonsis sold off the team's stars two years ago and slashed his payroll in half.

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