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Thursday, January 5, 2006
Updated: January 6, 4:54 PM ET
Still work in progress, New NHL on track

By Terry Frei
Special to ESPN.com

The New NHL is working.

Really, it is.

Make no mistake, that's not an unqualified acceptance of all the NHL's understandable self-congratulation.

The league is churning out numerical propaganda, arguing that the sport's entertainment quotient has skyrocketed. We're told, at least by implication, that most of those empty seats actually represent unused tickets that either are sitting in top drawers or couldn't even be unloaded by the guy with "I Need Tickets" signs in one upraised hand and a handful of tickets in the other.

A lot of that is Kool-Aid, too sugary to be consumed with enthusiasm following the New Year's resolutions to drop a few pounds.

This is more about individual eye and gut tests. Put away the calculators and toss aside the press releases. What are we seeing and how does it make us feel?

The bottom line: So far, so good. Skill is being rewarded more than before, whether that's Peter Forsberg setting up Simon Gagne, Sidney Crosby and Alexander Ovechkin leading a rejuvenating crop of rookies or Jaromir Jagr showing a renewed interest in earning his paycheck.

Sometimes you have to give credit where credit is due -- even if the credit is accompanied by an asterisk and 17 sentences of qualifiers read at the end of the commercial by a guy who talks faster than NHLPA executive Mike Gartner used to skate.

The new rules and enforcement standards, plus the salary cap and the realigned financial order, have created an NHL that in the first few months is a significant improvement over the pre-lockout product.

Those who won't admit that are entitled to their opinions, but are most likely either: (a) against anything the perceived bogeyman, Gary Bettman, supports; (b) wildly unrealistic; or, (c) fans of the University of Calgary Dinosaurs, because the mascot represents their philosophies.

There is plenty to quibble with, of course.

Among other things, the NHL's ad campaign was ridiculous, the new national cable television package in the U.S. is hard to find and easy to overlook, the heavy-on-divisional rivalries schedule is a disaster, and even one of the New Rules (involving instigating in the final five minutes) turned out to be only a guideline with a Gretzky Exemption.

Yet if the standards are realistic and fair, absolutely, the game itself -- the New NHL -- is working. And if we're going to jump all over Bettman's case for everything connected to the game, whether it's within his control or otherwise, it's only fair that we give him credit for overseeing a relaunch of the on-ice product that remains a work in progress, but has made the game better.

What did we expect?

I was expecting that by the time we were writing all these state-of stories at the halfway point, the conclusions generally were going to be gloomy and cynical told-you-sos.

Yes, there is some of that at the halfway point, both within the game itself and on the outside, looking in.

Even that is reflective of what can be one of the sport's major strengths or weaknesses, depending on your perspective on any given issue: No other sport gets knocked so much by its own constituency. If the term is stretched to include media specializing or at least those seriously interested in the sport, members of hockey's press corps aren't nearly as sycophantic as those who cover the other major sports. Plus, there is a wide array of opinions -- from the press box, the arena seats or in front of the television at any given moment -- about what's right and what's wrong with the game.

That's a nice way of saying that virtually regardless of what the NHL does, somebody who makes a living covering it or working within it is going to rip it.

Loudly.

Some of the criticism has to do with the continuing resentment of a "New York lawyer," Bettman, serving as commissioner. To this day, I think it would have been good for the game if both Bettman and NHLPA executive director Bob Goodenow stepped down after the end of the lockout, giving the league even more of a fresh start. But the demonizing of Bettman often borders on the preposterous.

Plus, there are a lot of folks who can't seem to make up their minds.

Don't we all know someone who complained about the clogged-up tedium the NHL had become and now whines that the dramatic changes aren't what they really wanted?

Anyone predisposed to find something wrong here could find it.

Though the goal was to remove some of the subjectivity from the officiating -- use your stick to obstruct, it's a penalty, period -- the standards have fluctuated. On nights of the highest vigilance, yes, the parade to the penalty box and the lack of five-on-five time can be jarring. There has been some backsliding. Some human nature has returned to the decision-making process in the sense that while referees were supposed to make every call independently, we're seeing more "your-turn-now" calls.

But something had to be done.

The NHL, uncharacteristically, took bold steps to address the problems.

More important, unless the backsliding in enforcement of the anti-obstruction standards becomes a complete surrender in the remaining months of the regular season and the postseason, the smartest teams and coaches will use it all to their advantage.

The repeated cross-check and the anything-goes strategy in front of the net are gone, but the physicality in the game doesn't have to be history.

There are balances to be discovered -- by the referees, coaches and players -- in the continued evolution, and that might take a while. When the emotions and stakes are heightened in the playoffs, that will be an acid test of everyone and everything.

And next summer, the league must ruthlessly and painstakingly assess the entire package and not be afraid to tweak where necessary. There were stubborn mind-sets that needed to be attacked here, so the league would be wrong to panic and back down on everything that draws criticism. But if something clearly needs to be tweaked, do it and don't apologize for it. It won't be an admission of error, but of rational and open-minded self-assessment.

Off the ice, the astute general managers and organizations will find ways to "work" the cap -- not circumvent it, but further formulate coherent strategies to build rosters within the constraints of the new collective bargaining agreement.

On the ice, after 40-plus games of the New NHL's first season, it should be clear that the league means business this time.

The losers will whine about it. The winners will continue to accept the realities and adapt.

Terry Frei is a regular contributor to ESPN.com. He is the author of "Third Down and a War to Go" and "Horns, Hogs, and Nixon Coming."