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Return of NHL still not net gain

THE BALTIMORE SUN

Hockey's reinvention of itself in the wake of a season lost to labor dispute seems to be working in many ways.

Scoring is up, both for teams and individual stars. Rookies Sidney Crosby and Alex Ovechkin, who met for the first time last night, appear as talented as the hype suggested. Attendance is up from 2003-04 in 23 of 30 NHL cities, and the league says it drew more fans than in any previous October.

"We are very, very pleased with the devotion our fans have shown us," NHL spokesman Frank Brown said.

And yet, not all is well, especially not in these parts. The NHL still can't get a national audience to watch on television in the United States. And attendance is lagging in some cities. Even with Ovechkin, the Washington Capitals are struggling to draw fans.

So the verdict is not in on how the NHL has endured the work stoppage that cost it the 2004-05 season.

Rule changes - tighter calling of penalties, smaller goalie pads, the acceptance of two-line passes - have certainly produced a more freewheeling game.

Ottawa is the top scoring team this season, same as in the 2003-04 season. But the Senators are averaging 4.6 goals a game compared with 3.2 that season. Those 3.2 goals a game would rank 12th in the NHL this season.

A dozen players are on pace to score 100 or more points. Martin St. Louis led the league with 94 in 2003-04. Ottawa's Daniel Alfredsson and Philadelphia's Simon Gagne are on goal-a-game paces, unheard of since the heyday of Wayne Gretzky and Mario Lemieux more than a decade ago.

"There is an element of just dynamic execution of the game that has not been evident, or at least not this evident, in a long time," Brown said.

Under the previous rules, said ESPN analyst John Buccigross, a lumbering defenseman could simply grab a shifty forward to break the offensive flow. It was the equivalent of NFL defensive backs being able to grab receivers or NBA defenders being able to bearhug Michael Jordan.

"It's really freed up the game in terms of the speed and seeing some great stick-handling," Buccigross said. "Crosby's a great example. Guys just would've grabbed and wrestled him under the old rules. He would've still been a great player, but he would've been prevented from becoming the icon he will be."

A skilled player can make an economic difference (attendance in Pittsburgh is up more than 4,000 a game in Crosby's first season).

The faster-paced, higher-scoring game has correlated with attendance increases across the league, though some figures aren't what they seem. Buccigross said he has been to alleged sellouts in Columbus and Detroit where many lower-bowl seats were empty.

Regardless, observers agree that the new labor agreement, which features the tightest salary cap in pro sports, will make more franchises financially stable.

"If you can't make it as an owner with this salary cap, it's either your fault or you're in a town that just can't support hockey," said Mike Ozanian, a senior editor at Forbes who recently completed his annual analysis of the game's financial state.

The healthiest franchises - the New York Rangers, Boston Bruins and Toronto Maple Leafs - are those that own their arenas and/or have lucrative regional cable contracts, he said.

Ozanian said that teams struggling with revenues or attendance after a few years under the new system might need to move or be contracted.

"What this season's really going to tell you is which fans have forgiven their teams and which cities are real hockey towns," he said.

He's skeptical that the game can survive in non-traditional hockey towns such as Raleigh, N.C., Atlanta and Miami.

But Brown said cities like that are the ones most likely to benefit from the new labor deal.

"I don't think there's any real pronouncement to be made on any markets after one quarter of our schedule has been played," he said. "The impact of the new system won't be in place for many years."

He also noted that the NHL has recovered attendance more quickly than Major League Baseball did after its last work stoppage in 1994 and 1995.

Buccigross said he hopes the league will remain patient with such cities, because the sport is still young in this country (there were only four U.S. teams as late as 1967).

"Grandfathers haven't been taking their grandsons to games in a lot of cities," he said.

Washington is one city where hockey has rarely been a big part of daily life.

Attendance is down more than 2,000 a game from 2003-04, and the Capitals rank last in the league. Some of that is easily understandable, because owner Ted Leonsis sold off the team's stars two years ago and slashed his payroll in half.

Leonsis addressed the lagging attendance in a statement on the team's Web site: "Our attendance is down and we expected it. The lockout, our strategy to reconstruct the makeup of our team and the arrival of the Nationals baseball club have contributed to our reduced attendance. ... A major reason is many [season-ticket] plan-holders are uncertain about our youth movement and did not renew their plans."

Only 60 percent of the club's season-ticket holders from 2003-04 renewed. On the plus side, team officials said, walk-up sales and individual ticket purchases are up. The Capitals are making direct appeals by phone, mail and e-mail to former ticket holders, asking them to renew. And the team is beginning to push Ovechkin as a major star (they've hung up a 50-by-56-foot wall banner of him in downtown Washington).

With a passionate owner in Leonsis and a gifted star in Ovechkin, Washington hockey fans have plenty to celebrate, Buccigross said. He thinks the rookie Russian, especially, could create excitement around a franchise without a spectacular history.

"He will score 50, 60, 70 goals a season and in 10 years, he will be the greatest player in Capitals history," he said. "He's certainly a guy people could latch onto, and a player that talented tends to play for a championship at some point."

Washington is not the only struggling club. The St. Louis Blues, once beloved, have experienced the worst attendance drop. Dave Checketts, a former president and CEO of Madison Square Garden, recently backed off from purchasing the team, even at a discount price. The Anaheim Mighty Ducks, the Dallas Stars and the New Jersey Devils are also failing to recapture fans.

The television ratings are more troubling for the league. NHL broadcasts on OLN have averaged a 0.3 rating, meaning only 215,000 people a week are watching. Ratings are much stronger in Canada, but hockey's popularity was never in question there.

Brown noted that the NHL did not sign its deal with OLN until a few weeks before the season, meaning neither the league nor the network had time to ratchet up a proper marketing campaign.

ESPN declined an option to broadcast the season, leaving the NHL to sign a deal with OLN, which reaches 25 million fewer homes. The league gained some extra revenue from the deal (about $2 million a team). And some television experts said the NHL would benefit because OLN would advertise aggressively in hopes of making hockey the centerpiece of a mainstream sports network.

But others said that by playing on a relatively obscure network, the NHL would further separate itself from the NFL, NBA and baseball.

"You wonder if the extra money is worth not being a part of the television sports landscape," Buccigross said. "I mean, people don't know where OLN is. They don't go to OLN to watch sports."

NHL officials are confident that will change, but say it will take time.

"It's in our interest and OLN's interest to be in more houses," Brown said. "It's a work in progress."

childs.walker@baltsun.com

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