Facing disappointing television ratings, a rash of playoff upsets and continued criticism that the game has lost some of its excitement, NHL commissioner Gary Bettman Wednesday disputed claims that hockey is in trouble.
Bettman, addressing the media during the Stanley Cup Finals, called disappointing television ratings for both the regular season and playoffs "an aberration."
"It may be a function of a whole host of things, not the least of which was going to the Olympics and the fact that we're running later this year," he said. "The fact that we're a week later because we went to Nagano makes a difference. The fact that the weather may have been in certain patterns that were different, particularly for hockey, makes a difference."
"I don't think this game's in trouble. I think this game can use some fine-tuning, I think this game can use some adjustments, and that's something we look at every year," Bettman continued. "There's a long range between saying something's good and we can improve it and saying something's bad. I don't think this game is bad. I've heard some of you say that. I just don't buy it. I think the game can use some tinkering, and that's something we're doing. I reject the notion, as some have suggested, that this is a game in trouble. To the contrary, most of the vital signs are good."
Those signs include stable ownership and strong attendance, although Bettman conceded that this season's attendance figures will be "flat" compared to previous years.
The commissioner also dismissed suggestions that the current playoff format should be changed to provide higher-seeded teams with more of an advantage, to avoid the kind of upsets that saw the top three Eastern Conference seeds ousted in the opening round.
"I like (this format) because you had too much predictability," he said. "The lack of predictability is what makes the playoffs exciting. If every time you just went through the seeds the way it was, why bother playing it? This league has had a 1-16 format, a divisional format, we think what we have now has worked very well. Particularly, it's created a great deal of excitement at the end of the regular season."
Bettman, however, supports other proposed changes, pointing to the crackdown on obstruction and holding penalties that followed this year's "Winter Break." He also expects NHL general managers to approve a plan to move the net out another two feet from the end boards, a proposal which was tested in a handful of AHL games.
"That seems to accomplish a lot of what the other tests aimed at doing -- encouraging forechecking, making it harder for the goaltender to handle the puck," Bettman said. "We made a change in the obstruction (rule) coming out of the Olympics and everyone seems to think that's a good thing, and I think we need to pick it up a notch to make sure we keep the momentum going and don't slip back.">
"I think post-Nagano, the game has been much better in terms of its flow. All sports go through cycles in terms of offense vs. defense. And we want to make sure the cycle focuses back on the offense because there has been a great deal of focus on defense."
Also under consideration is a two-referee system, although logistics likely will make the introduction impossible for the 1999-2000 season, he said.
"There are a number of good reasons to consider it," Bettman noted. "The game is fast, the game is physical. Despite the notion that adding another body would make the ice more crowded, I think it would make it less crowded because the referees wouldn't have to skate through the play anymore."
In addition, league officials are looking at ways to reduce the incidence of head injuries, like those which sidelined superstars Paul Kariya and Eric Lindros for long stretches during the season.
"I don't want to overly personalize it. I'm concerned about concussions," Bettman said. "Anything we can do that reduces the incidence of concussions has to be a positive for everybody, especially the players."
"Maybe we have to get more aggressive, in terms of supplementary discipline, with respect to hits to the head ... because of the severity of what can result and in part because frequently there's no good reason for it. That's something we're going to look at over the summer. It may be time to be more aggressive in terms of making sure that head injuries are a less frequent object of attack."
The man in charge of discipline for the NHL is senior vice president and director of hockey operations Brian Burke. His contract with the league expires at the end of the playoffs and there have been rumors that Burke is eyeing a general manager's post.
"Brian and I have not yet set our courses for the future. At such point as we do, we'll let everyone know," Bettman said. "I think Brian Burke has done a great job. I think he has a very, very, very difficult job. I think he has a job that's not popular, in terms of the decisions he has to make. He's been hard-working, dedicated to the game and the league, and I think he's done a terrific job."
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