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NHL teams will play each other at least once per season

11/30/2007 - NHL

PEBBLE BEACH, Calif. -- The NHL's board of governors
approved the sale of the Nashville Predators and changed the
league's scheduling format Thursday night to allow every team to
face each other at least once every season.

Paul Kelly, the new executive director of the NHL Players
Association, also addressed the league's owners during a
late-afternoon session to open the board's two-day meeting at an
elite resort on the Northern California coast.

After a three-year experiment in developing rivalries in
hockey's far-flung outposts, the NHL voted to go back to the
scheduling format used before the 2004-05 lockout, most notably
decreasing the current eight games against every team's divisional
opponents to six.

Starting next season, teams will play just 24 total games
against their four divisional foes, 40 against the rest of the
conference and 18 against the other conference -- one game against
all 15 foes, and three home-and-home series against wild-card
opponents.

"The sense of the board was we heard the concerns raised by
some of the fans, and this was an attempt to be responsive to the
concerns of our fans," NHL commissioner Gary Bettman said, while
still claiming intradivisional games draw the league's biggest
crowds. "Every team will play every other team at least once."

After the lockout, the NHL returned with a determination to
spark division rivalries with a top-heavy new schedule. But both
players and fans grew to dislike the schedule's monotony and the
reduced chances to see the other conference's biggest stars.

Last January, 22 of the NHL's 30 teams voted to scrap the
intense divisional slate. The expected rivalries simply never
developed, resulting in dull scheduling quirks such as the San Jose
Sharks' three home games and four overall meetings with the Los
Angeles Kings in November.

Meanwhile, each conference's biggest stars made fewer
appearances on the other side of the continent, draining fan
interest. Pittsburgh star Sidney Crosby, now a third-year pro, will
play his first regular-season games in Vancouver, Edmonton and
Calgary next week.

"They're tired of seeing the same guys week after week," Kelly
said of his players. "They would prefer to see those
interconference teams two times, more than once."

Kelly even said the players would entertain the notion of an
84-game season -- allowing every team to play a home-and-home series
against one division in the other conference each year -- if owners
agreed to reduce the number of preseason games.

Bettman said the owners could be open to the notion, but it
hasn't been formally proposed yet. The new scheduling format is
binding only for next season, meaning further changes could be made
next year.

The NHL also rubber-stamped the sale of the Predators to an
investment group led by David Freeman, the CEO of a venture capital
firm. Outgoing owner Craig Leipold attended the meeting, and
Freeman -- who isn't allowed to attend a board meeting without a
finished deal -- could formally close the sale with his group by
Monday.

"Obviously from our standpoint it's a little bit of closure,"
Predators coach Barry Trotz said after Nashville's 6-5 win in
Ottawa on Thursday night. "I think it'll be a big boost for us as
a franchise and I think the local ownership is going to work hard
to make us a viable market."

Freeman's group still needs approval from Nashville's Metro
Sports Authority and the city council to implement the
revenue-maximizing changes to the arena lease for the Predators,
who lost $70 million in Leipold's 10 years of ownership, according
to the outgoing owner.

"We're looking forward to welcoming David Freeman into the
league," Bettman said. "We think local ownership, coupled with
the good work the mayor has done to modify the lease term, bode
very well for the future of this franchise."

Six months ago, Leipold had a deal to sell to Canadian
billionaire Jim Balsillie for $220 million. But that transaction
fell through in June when the co-CEO of Blackberry makers Research
in Motion Ltd. started taking season ticket deposits in Hamilton,
Ontario.

Bettman said the new owners group signed a standard consent
agreement that includes provisions to keep the team in Nashville
through the near future.

"We all love it in Nashville and I think for us players our
main focus is just to play," Predators right wing Jordin Tootoo
said. "There's nothing we can do about what goes on up top. Bottom
line, we all want to be in Nashville."

Bettman also said the NHL salary cap will rise next season
because of an expected increase in revenues, but the commissioner
wouldn't cite a cap figure yet. The current cap is $50.3 million.