- Jim Kelley
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With a backdrop of one of the world's most exclusive resorts -- a place that positively reeks of old money -- NHL commissioner Gary Bettman this week articulated his vision for the future of his league.
OK, so maybe holding the a board of governors meetings for a league facing a financial crisis at the Breakers Hotel on Florida's monied island of Palm Beach wasn't a stroke of marketing genius, but Bettman did have a great many interesting things to say.
For one, he laid out a plan that would address problems beyond the current collective bargaining struggles.
Bettman wants to explore ways to address both the high cost of tickets and (dare we let out a gasp here?) changes in the game itself.
Cynics will argue that Bettman is controlling the spin in the battle of perception with the players association. After all, if the league and the owners seem to want to work, well, it would be hard not to side with them concerning the need for a salary cap and a plan to lower ticket prices as well as to include fans and the league's crustiest critics (the media) in talks to improve the quality of hockey at the NHL level.
The NHLPA is backed in a corner, looking as if the players are against a salary cap (true, by their own admission), against lower ticket prices (by no means a declared statement) and against improvements that would make the game more entertaining for the fans and perhaps more fun to play (not true, and actually something they have longed for).
Truth be told, both sides want a more fan-friendly game, more fans in the seats and more growth to the business side of the operation.
The battle is over how.
Yet Bettman chose Palm Beach as the springboard for his blueprint for the future, which includes a two-pronged plan -- a new collective bargaining agreement that allows for teams to both make money and compete on an equal footing, and a fan-friendly league in which the game itself, and not the sideshow issues that surround it, becomes the focal point.
"That is my vision," Bettman said of the newly proposed approach.
For the him to concede -- for the first time -- that the almost constant complaints about the quality of entertainment in the NHL are real and deserve a full airing is newsworthy, no matter where he chooses to announce it.
In that regard, Bettman charged the general managers, a hidebound group of traditionalists if there ever was one, to prepare a list of potential changes to be discussed at their next gathering, a March mission to Las Vegas.
And while the recommendations will likely be minimal, Bettman hopes to take the best of them before a committee made up of fans, players, execs and the media. One hopes that this committee will be allowed to venture beyond the scope of the GMs' recommendations so that real changes can truly be discussed.
If everything were on the table, there could be discussion of how best to officiate the game, how to increase scoring (something most fans want) and how to get back to the strengths of the game (skating, passing, shooting, scoring and hitting) and do away with the weaknesses (clutching, grabbing, holding, hooking, and dreadfully boring defensive schemes), and how to fix the ridiculous awarding of a point to a team that loses a game in overtime.
Among the ideas allegedly kicked around in Palm Beach were plans for a three-point win, repainting the ice with wider lines to increase the size of the offensive and neutral zone areas, wider and taller goal cages to reduce the impact of well-padded and extremely large goaltenders and perhaps even moving the nets back a bit.
These suggestions are little more than trial balloons, but the fact that the NHL is saying something other than the game is good and the fans just love it -- which has been the script for the past several seasons -- is certainly a Bettmanesque step in the right direction.
It's not likely that the NHLwill turn the shape of its game over to a committee, especially one that includes the media. Bettman, a brilliant man, likely has a plan for exactly the kind of game he wants. He almost said as much in his last state-of-the-league address during the Stanley Cup finals in New Jersey when he conceded that the game had problems but that he knew how to fix them. Still, by reaching out to involve others, Bettman tempers the impression that he sometimes acts not just as commissioner but as the king of hockey. He also opens the door to the politics of inclusion, something the neither the league itself nor the NHLPA has been particularly adept at communicating.
"At some point I'd like to reach some sort of end to the debate over the game," Bettman said.
How the NHL goes about it may only be window dressing, but having a working agreement that benefits both labor and management, a fan-friendly atmosphere and a product that is appealing to old and new fans alike would be one heck of a way to start.
The Great One, Mr. Hockey and a kid named Brett
Hang around long enough and you get to see many of the NHL's greatest players play the game.
Brett Hull is in that group. It was mildly noticed when Hull tied and then passed the legendary Marcel Dionne for third on the NHL's career goal-scoring list. But in slotting himself behind only Wayne Gretzky and Gordie Howe, Hull became a living legend, one on display nightly at an arena near you.
"I'm behind Wayne Gretzky (894) and Gordie Howe (801)," Hull said in the wake of scoring the 732nd goal of his career. "I can't put it into words what it means. One guy is known as the greatest player ever, and the other guy is known as Mr. Hockey."
Hull tied the mark in Toronto, a 5-2 loss, and he broke it against the team for which Dionne played the bulk of his games, the Los Angeles Kings. In typical Hull fashion it was a game-winning goal -- a patented one-timer from the left circle in overtime -- just seconds after he had rung a shot off the crossbar.
When Hull left the University of Minnesota-Duluth in 1986 his only goal was to play an NHL game. That 21-year-old was aware of Dionne's accomplishments, but he never expected to be in sight of them, let alone better them.
"I'm not at a loss for words very often, but I don't know how to explain this," Hull said. "I just wanted one day to play in the league, give it a shot, see what I could do. To have it come to this point ... I don't know how to explain it."
Hull once said he considered himself the smartest player in the game. It was regarded as a shamelessly bold and self-serving statement, but in retrospect he may well be right. In an era when goals are hard to come by, Hull keeps scoring. He still has that fabulously quick release, but he also has a keen mind for where to go on the ice and how to get there. He's the most watched player in any arena, but he somehow finds a way to vanish into scoring position and get his shots away. And he does it night after night after night.
I saw Marcel Dionne play a lot -- and that's the way he did it, too. Brett Hull didn't get to this point just by sticking around, a la Bruce Smith and his NFL sack record or Cal Ripken and his MLB games-played mark. He did it by continuing to play well, night in and night out, in every arena and against the very best checkers in what has become little more than a checking game.
It's what great players do, and Hull is one of the greatest the game has ever seen.
The Comrie chronicles
Word on the street is that Edmonton Oilers general manager Kevin Lowe got quite a few attaboys from his peers when he demanded a payback from Mike Comrie's wallet before signing off on a trade of the unsigned forward to the Aneheim Mighty Ducks.
The story is that Lowe and Mighty Ducks general manager Bryan Murray reached a tentative agreement on a trade that would have sent the Edmonton center to the Ducks for Corey Perry (currently the Ontario Hockey League's leading scorer) and the Ducks No.1 pick in the 2004 draft, but Lowe said he wouldn't sign off on the deal until he talked to Comrie. It's been reported that Lowe told Comrie that he wouldn't agree to the deal unless Comrie paid some $2.5 million to the Oilers.
Sounds like extortion, but there's a method to Lowe's madness: The figure may sound like pie in the sky, but sources told ESPN.com that it came from taking the rookie salary cap figure for Perry (the Ducks No.1 pick in 2003, 28th overall) and the expected rookie cap figure in 2004.
So why should Comrie pay it? Well, the whispered version in Edmonton is that Lowe & Co. company feel that Comrie took some $8.5 million in bonus money out the door during the past two years, and now that he has it he wants to move on to a bigger market. Given that the Oilers are struggling right now and getting only prospects in return for the time and money they invested in helping Comrie develop to the point where he's an in-demand NHLer, they want to extract a price.
It's not likely they'll get it and it's arguable that they don't deserve it because they agreed to those easily makable bonus clauses. But if anything, Lowe is making a point. What remains to be seen is if he'll scuttle the deal with Anaheim or change his mind because it's a given that Comrie is not going to hand over a check to gain his release.
If this goes on much longer, look for Murray to look to make a different deal for the Ducks. More and more players will be put on the trading block in the next few weeks as teams that aren't Stanley Cup or even playoff contenders look to dump salary. Comrie, meanwhile has few options except to sit and stew or, perhaps, take out his checkbook.
A No. 1's first birthday
Dec. 12 marks the one year anniversary of the deal that sent goaltender Mike Dunham from the Nashville Predators to the New York Rangers for Rem Murray, Marek Zidlicky and Tomas Kloucek. While while Dunham has played reasonably well for the Rangers, it is Nashville that has improved by leaps and bounds.
The Preds moved Dunham because they felt Tomas Vokoun was ready to take over the No. 1 job. He's started 78 of the Predators' 81 games since the deal. He's got a goals-against average of 2.37, a save percentage of .917 and he wins, a reason the Preds are contending for their first-ever playoff berth.
In addition, Zidlicky has been an absolute gem for the Predators. A defenseman, he leads the team in scoring and is the driving force behind a very successful power play. Murray has added a veteran presence and is a more-than-useful contributor. Though Kloucek didn't work out, Preds general manger David Poile flipped him to Atlanta for Kirill Safronov, a first-round draft pick of the Phoenix Coyotes in 1999 and a player who could still figure in Nashville's future.
Dec. 15 will be one year since Adam Deadmarsh's last game. Once viewed as a bright young star on the NHL's horizon, the Los Angeles Kings forward suffered a concussion after colliding with a teammate. It was his second concussion in two weeks and the third of his career. Since then, Deadmarsh hasn't been able to exercise, and there are fears that his career could be at an end. He attempted a comeback last month, but was injured in practice and now has no timetable for a return.
The other player in that deal that sent Rob Blake to the Colorado Avalanche, Aaron Miller, has also been beset with injuries. The defenseman played in just 49 games last season because of back and groin injuries and currently is out of the lineup with a mysterious "upper body" injury that caused him to miss the Kings' 4-1 win Thursday vs. the Predators.
Jim Kelley is the NHL writer for ESPN.com. Submit questions or comments to his mail bag.
It may have simply been posturing, but Gary Bettman's approach to the CBA is a good one.