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Thursday, June 16, 2011
NHL's issues carry over to next season

By Scott Burnside
ESPN.com

The last of the broken glass and charred wreckage has been cleared from the streets of Vancouver, and the last of the Boston Bruins' fans have likely made their way home after celebrating their team's first Stanley Cup in a generation.

And while this sometimes compelling, often ugly, violence-stained Stanley Cup finals series between two long-suffering franchises remains indelibly etched in our memories, it seems an opportune time to examine the path we have traveled and the one we might travel in the coming months.

As recently as Game 3 of the Stanley Cup finals, we were reminded of what remains the NHL's single biggest issue -- the dangerous blow to the head.

When Vancouver defenseman Aaron Rome toppled a defenseless Nathan Horton with a devastating late hit, it reinforced that the NHL still has miles to go before fully coming to grips with how to keep its players from potentially destroying the careers of their opponents.

Nathan Horton
Bruins forward Nathan Horton suffered a severe concussion when hit by the Canucks' Aaron Rome in the Cup finals.

The league moved swiftly to suspend Rome for the final four games of the playoffs. A couple of days later, the NHL's general managers agreed to recommend broadening the terms of Rule 48 to include more dangerous plays. The competition committee subsequently agreed to those changes, and the Board of Governors should pass the new wording into law this week.

The conundrum, though, is that when asked whether the Rome hit would have been allowed had it not been too late, GMs and league officials gave a variety of answers.

Rome himself told reporters he felt it was simply a hockey play gone bad.

The bottom line? The thorny issue of what kind of hits the league wants to eliminate will continue to dog it into next season.

There might never be a consensus, but if anyone was thinking or hoping the league would move to a blanket ban on all head shots, it appears that day remains far off. This means we will see more players leave the ice on stretchers and miss long periods of time with concussion issues.

On a related note, it was refreshing to see NHL commissioner Gary Bettman follow up a series of moves aimed at making the NHL a safer place for its players by handing over the NHL's supplemental discipline duties to former player Brendan Shanahan.

It was high time that longtime executive vice president Colin Campbell moved away from those duties.

Look for Shanahan to hand down more severe punishments and to be far more transparent about the reasoning behind those decisions. This will be a definite step in the right direction in communicating the league's message and helping to restore order to an office that left players, coaches and GMs, to say nothing of the casual fan, baffled at what was and wasn't worthy of a suspension.

Any discussion of the concussion/head shot issue would be remiss without noting one of the grand disappointments of this NHL season past -- the absence of the game's best player, Sidney Crosby.

After being clipped by then-Washington forward David Steckel in the Winter Classic on Jan. 1, Crosby played one more game, then did not return for the balance of the season.

His convalescence sparked a cottage industry in rumor and innuendo, including spurious reports out of the French media in Quebec that Crosby's career is over.

The sense is Crosby will return for training camp, but his injury, coming on a relatively innocuous play, is a stark reminder of the dangers of concussions.

The Penguins, also without Evgeni Malkin, still managed to make the playoffs, although they blew a 3-1 series lead against Tampa Bay in the first round.

Speaking of the Lightning, they were one of the feel-good stories of the past season, as they emerged from a dark period of ownership squabbles. Behind new owner Jeff Vinik, rookie GM Steve Yzerman and first-year coach Guy Boucher, they iced a competitive team that rolled to the seventh game of the Eastern Conference finals.

Thrashers Move
After more than a decade of futility in Atlanta, the NHL allowed the team to be sold to True North Sports and Entertainment in Winnipeg.

Their renaissance was a nice juxtaposition against another Southeast Division storyline that saw the Atlanta Thrashers uprooted. After more than a decade of futility in Atlanta, the NHL allowed the team to be sold to True North Sports and Entertainment in Winnipeg, with the deal closing on the eve of the Stanley Cup finals.

The news sparked a national celebration in Canada as the NHL returned to the prairie city for the first time since it lost its franchise to Phoenix in the 1996-97 season.

How this move makes the NHL stronger in the long haul remains to be seen, given that Winnipeg is now the smallest market in the NHL and will almost certainly replace Edmonton as the least attractive destination for free agents.

Still, the frenzy in Winnipeg will be far more attractive than the empty seats and incompetent ownership in Atlanta, even though the loss of a major media market is never a good thing.

The NHL might have resolved one franchise issue, but this wouldn't be pro hockey without a few ownership brush fires still smoldering, starting with the perpetual stinkpot that is the Phoenix Coyotes.

The Coyotes' ownership issue remains far from settled more than two years after former owner Jerry Moyes tried to sneak the team into bankruptcy in a backdoor attempt to sell the team to BlackBerry mogul Jim Balsillie.

The city of Glendale, Ariz., kicked in another $25 million of hard-earned taxpayer money to cover losses by the team to ensure the Coyotes remain in the desert for the 2011-12 season. But instead of moving decisively to close a deal and make up for months of squandered time, city fathers continue to dither.

In the end, it's entirely possible, if not likely, the NHL will have to move the Coyotes, too, given the inept work by local politicians, with prospective owner Matthew Hulsizer, who has set aside more than $100 million for the purchase of the team, growing impatient.

Quebec City, still without a firm commitment on a new arena, looks like an outside option to get the team, and places such as Kansas City and Seattle will be regularly included as potential options for relocation, although there isn't an obvious ownership group for either locale.

Sadly, the good work done by Phoenix coach Dave Tippett and GM Don Maloney in icing a competitive team under trying circumstances might yet go for naught.

Although the league didn't want to rush into a realignment decision following the sale of the Thrashers to Winnipeg, it would seem that waiting until the end of the 2011-12 season gives the NHL room to accommodate another team moving. Regardless, the decision on what the league will look like with a team in Winnipeg will spark much debate within the league and beyond. League officials have told ESPN.com they will entertain many options, from tinkering with the current six-division format to a dramatic overhaul.

There was good news for the league on a number of fronts, though.

The Winter Classic turned out to be a success in Pittsburgh even though balmy temperatures and rain forced the game to be played the evening of Jan. 1 instead of in the afternoon. And the revived Heritage Classic, a second outdoor game in Calgary, turned out to be a great success north of the border.

The Winter Classic was preceded by the brilliant HBO series "24/7" that followed the Penguins and Washington Capitals. The series earned an Emmy and undoubtedly will set the stage for a much-anticipated sequel next winter.

Word is that the NHL will have just one outdoor game on its schedule next season, held on Jan. 2 in Philadelphia with the Flyers hosting the New York Rangers at Citizens Bank Park (the traditional Jan. 1 time slot is taken up by the NFL playoffs).

The league also settled its contentious television contract issue in the U.S., signing a long-term deal with NBC-Comcast, the parent company of the league's U.S. cable provider, Versus.

Whether that stability will see the NHL return to the Olympics in Sochi, Russia, in 2014 remains unknown, but NBC certainly will be putting some pressure on the NHL to have its players in the Olympic hockey tournament even though there are a host of negative issues connected with the Sochi games.

Olympic participation also will be a key ingredient in the collective bargaining process that one assumes will begin sometime late in the 2011-12 season.

The negotiations will be the first between the league's owners and the National Hockey League Players' Association since the lockout that scuttled the entire 2004-05 season.

The NHLPA will be relying on new executive director Donald Fehr, a veteran of the baseball labor wars for many years, to go toe to toe with Bettman.

But both sides seem to acknowledge that a second straight labor stoppage would court professional disaster, given the strides the game has taken since the unprecedented stoppage. Still, look for the league to go after ways to keep more of its franchises from suffering financial woes (hey, wasn't that what the lockout was supposed to have accomplished?). There also will be issues of drug testing and revenue sharing that will have to be sorted through.

The labor negotiations will take on an interesting hue, given that they will follow potential disruptions to the NHL and NBA seasons, as both leagues have labor issues to resolve.

It would seem that the NHL, which enjoyed a strong playoff season in terms of viewership, would be in a prime position to fill the sporting void should one or both of those leagues see a work stoppage. But any strides made would be lost should the NHL not keep its own labor house in order.

Scott Burnside covers the NHL for ESPN.com.