Bettman's task: Make NHL as fantastic as NBA

The reason former NHL president John Ziegler lost his job was that he couldn't produce what the owners wanted. Now, just before Christmas, the owners have installed their first commissioner -- 40-year-old Gary Bettman -- whom they fully expect to deliver what Ziegler couldn't

What do the owners expect Bettman to do?


* Bring the NHL the same kind of popularity enjoyed by the NBA, where Bettman has been working as the league's senior vice president and general counsel.

* Reach a collective bargaining agreement with the NHL Players Association that will keep contracts under control, much the way Bettman orchestrated the complicated salary cap structure in the NBA.


"Instead of fighting over how to divide up a small pie, we have to grow the pie," Bettman said during a "Hockey Night in Canada" interview.

* Expand television exposure.

All these things have been in demand for a long time. But Caps general manager David Poile said there is no way anything less VTC can be expected from the new guy who says bravely, "I'm looking forward to a tremendous challenge."

"It's a big job," said Poile. "A very big job. And all those [goals] are reasons why John has lost his job, so they have to be part of the job description. One of the biggest things he faces is the collective bargaining agreement next season.

"Football is going through it right now, baseball is facing it and we're facing it. That's three of the big four within six months of each other who will be trying to work out agreements that should set the course for pro sports into the future."

Part of that future course in the NHL is division alignment, now that two more teams -- Miami and Anaheim, Calif. -- are coming into the league.

Poile, who would like to see Miami and the Tampa Bay Lightning in the Patrick Division with his Capitals, was bolstered by the words of Chicago Blackhawks owner Bill Wirtz, who indicated that would be the likely scenario, with the Winnipeg Jets moving from the Smythe to the Norris Division and Anaheim joining the Smythe.

"It would make the most sense, and would be the simplest thing to do," said Poile. "But it might be a time for more major rearrangement of the alignments."


The NHL may be more open to radical changes than major-league baseball, but it isn't likely. When the NHL expanded with Tampa Bay and Ottawa, no team would support anyone else's realignment plan, so the league took the simple way out: sticking Tampa Bay in the Norris and Ottawa in the Adams, leaving everyone else where they were.

Where is he now?

Remember Dave Schultz, the Philadelphia Flyers enforcer who set the NHL record for penalty minutes at 472 in 1974-75? He's 43 and coaching hockey at Malvern Prep, a private school outside Philadelphia. He says he wants to coach the Flyers to their next Stanley Cup, and to do that, he has to get some experience -- and a new reputation.

"My reputation precedes me," Schultz told The Philadelphia Inquirer. "People watched me and said, 'What an animal -- must not have any brains in his head.' It's a hard reputation to overcome."

What goes around . . .

When Detroit rallied for a come-from-behind victory over the Capitals on Nov. 20, Red Wings coach/general manager Bryan Murray said "he felt sorry" for his brother, Caps coach Terry Murray. Now Bryan Murray may be in need of the sympathy. His team is 2-6-1 over its past nine games and he seems to have a near mutiny on his hands.


Last Thursday, The Detroit Free Press carried a story in which a reporter asked an anonymous player if the Red Wings were trying to get Murray fired.

"Yes," the player was quoted as saying.

In the same story, Detroit superstar Steve Yzerman was quoted as saying: "The chemistry . . . the makeup of our team has to change. We have eight centermen as forwards. Guys are playing out of position and everybody wants to bat cleanup."

As general manager, Bryan Murray is obviously taking more heat than he would be if he was just the coach.