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Thursday, January 20, 2005
NHL could return better than ever

By Damien Cox
Special to ESPN.com

Here's guessing Gary Bettman, for the longest time, has had very different daydreams from his counterparts in other major North American pro sports.

David Stern? He might wistfully ponder a squeak-squeak world with less body art.

Bud Selig? A return to the innocent old days when a fellow could keep his andro in his locker for everybody to see.

Paul Tagliabue? Just more, I guess. More of everything. Maybe with just a little less Terrell Owens.

But Bettman, well, it seems likely the dreams that rumble through his brain on sunny Manhattan days when he stares out the window of the NHL's head offices might be somewhat more expansive.

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Like, "What if I could just start this messed-up league all over again?"

Well, now he gets his chance.

Assuming NHL owners don't get all ornery about losing an entire season because Bettman couldn't strike a new collective bargaining agreement with the players' union and had to cancel the 2004-05 campaign Wednesday, Bettman is going to get to supervise the NHL's version of The Reconstruction.

(Cue the "Gone with the Wind" theme.)

Make no mistake about it. Just about everything about the NHL, including things that have been in place for decades, is now up for scrutiny and, possibly, change.

There is no labor agreement with the players, but the old system has been proven to be useless and the theoretical permutations of the league's new financial structure are limitless after the league and the union came close to agreeing on a system that would have, for the first time, featured a salary cap.

Every section of the league's rulebook, meanwhile, is open for discussion, from the size of the rink to the lines that are painted on the ice to the penalties that are called (and aren't called) to the equipment a goaltender can don to face 100-mph slapshots.

People are talking shootouts, maybe at the end of each period, or perhaps deciding games by playing three-on-three. The red line might be taken out, and rules that were discarded 10 years ago might be brought back in.

In short, the NHL's style of play is being closely examined and could be facing revolutionary changes. This isn't raising the mound or changing the chuck rule.

This is redesigning the game.

Economics and the game, all up for grabs.

Then there are the players. With this season gone down the drain, the majority of the 700-plus players won't have contracts, and the majority of those players will be free agents. Very few teams will have commitments to more than 10 players, and in conjunction with the details of a new collective bargaining agreement, this could mean extraordinary player movement and extensive changes in how different types of players are valued.

Which brings us to television and, by extension, the marketing of the league and its players.

Currently, the league has no guaranteed revenue at all from U.S. network television, only from Canadian TV. To most, the marketing efforts of the league have been a total disaster, partly the product of a league without Wayne Gretzky, partly the product of a league that has shunned offense and partly the product of inept planning and execution.

So Bettman gets to start fresh there, as well.

Finally, there is international hockey, an area the NHL has been toying with for more than three decades but never with any consistent approach or direction.

They have World Cups (formerly the Canada Cup) whenever the mood strikes; there is no long-term commitment to the Olympics; the league has a haphazard approach to the annual World Championships; and there is no plan in place for expansion to Europe or even regular overseas exposure for the league through regular-season games or all-star contests.

About all Bettman knows for sure is that he has 30 teams going forward, which would be great except that most people familiar with the industry would figure that's at least six too many.

Bettman reads the newspapers, so he knows from baseball's experience that contraction has a way of backfiring on a fellow. Some teams might simply abandon ship partway through this labor struggle, but with a $300 million war chest, that seems unlikely, and Bettman has vowed to make sure all 30 teams survive.

To some, this is hockey's plunge into the great abyss, a frightening journey into darkness where nothing is guaranteed or known.

Sounds good to me.

This league has been kicking around for the better part of a century, usually as the distant cousin to the NFL, NBA and Major League Baseball on the North American scene.

Having finally jacked its revenues up to $2.1 billion last year, something at least in the same universe as the other sports, hockey has been grounded by this fight with the players.

But really, this is an opportunity, and a big one.

Don't forget, 10 years ago Sports Illustrated was proclaiming hockey as the new "in" sport. There were things about the game that were good but have been overwhelmed by too much bad in the past decade.

Certainly the ongoing bickering with the players has been a problem. The next CBA must, at its core, find a way to create mutual motivation to grow the game and share in its profits.

But the best part is that the game itself can be so much better, and so much more appealing to a wider audience. The speed and artistry of the game have been deliberately choked in the past decade in order to make more teams more competitive more of the time.

That has proven to be a disaster. Gretzky didn't become a star in the U.S. because he could check or fight but because he put enormous numbers on the board.

This league needs stars, and addressing the balance between offense and defense should allow the NHL to create those stars in all of its markets.

Wednesday's somber announcement was treated, particularly in Canada, as a mass funeral of sorts, and certainly, by giving the NHL the dubious achievement of being the only North American league to lose an entire season to labor strife, it was not a wonderful day for owners, players or the sport.

But blowing up the old to make way for the new has worked before, it seems to me.

Damien Cox, a columnist for the Toronto Star, is a regular contributor to ESPN.com.