Commish also wants labor concessions

ST. PAUL, Minn. -- NHL commissioner Gary Bettman wants to pair a new labor agreement with rules changes that would bring back offense to a league where defense has been emphasized increasingly for a decade.

The problem: Neither the league nor its players union knows when substantive negotiations will begin on a labor deal, much less when there will be a settlement.

Another problem: In a sport where even minor changes are fought by traditionalists and hard liners who prefer physical play to prolific scoring, gaining a consensus can be very difficult.

That won't prevent Bettman from asking NHL general managers to review every aspect of the game starting at their meetings this week, and continuing at their session during the Stanley Cup finals. After that, a league committee will study the GMs' recommendations and decide what changes should be adopted.

"Goalies handling the puck, goaltenders equipment, bigger nets, wider markings, moving the blue lines, using the tag-up rule, automatic icing, three points [rather than two] for a win in regulation -- they're going to be discussing everything," Bettman said Saturday.

Goal scoring has dropped from about 7.5 per game to about 5 per game since the late 1980s, when Wayne Gretzky (215 points) and Mario Lemieux (199) accumulated more than twice as many points during their peak seasons as any NHL player is likely to get this season.

No doubt Bettman worries the diminished scoring is translating into far too many 2-1 and 1-0 games and a less fan- and TV-friendly product. Attendance is down among a third of the league's 30 teams, and ratings on ESPN (0.5) and ESPN2 (0.2) remain by far the lowest of any of the major pro sports.

"I believe the balance between offense and defense needs to be adjusted," Bettman said Saturday. "My only view is that more offense can and will enhance this game."

The NHL is currently negotiating a new U.S. TV contract, amid reports ESPN is willing to pay only about half the $600 million it spent on its current five-year deal. A new contract also might not include any games on network television (ABC).

"If we don't properly address our issues, people will look back at this moment and say it was critical to this league," Bettman said.

Much of Bettman's annual All-Star weekend news conference was devoted to the labor negotiations, which have yet to begin in any meaningful form. As he has for years, Bettman emphasized that a league that pays out 76 percent of its revenues to its players badly needs economic reform.

"We had two bankruptcies [Ottawa and Buffalo] last year and a series of near misses," he said. "We can't continue this way. It has to be fixed."

Among other issues, Bettman said:

  • The league will keep its promise to award the Carolina Hurricanes an All-Star Game, though he isn't certain when.

  • Thirty-four percent of NHL players wear visors, and all six serious eye injuries this season were to players who don't wear visors.

  • He doesn't hold out much hope Winnipeg will regain an NHL team in the near future, either via expansion or relocation, even though the city is building a new arena.

  • He expects a majority of NHL teams to cut ticket prices if a labor deal more favorable to the owners is approved.