|Here's the transcript from Show 45 of Outside the Lines- NHL Report Card.
Bob Ley, host - The coolest game on Earth is on fire with the exploits of a legend just returned.
Unidentified male - Lemieux!
Mario Lemieux, Penguins owner - I think the league is much better than it was. I think the game has opened up somewhat, not to the point where I thought it would be. But I thought we made progress.
Ley - But even with most of its arenas nearly full, the NHL is a tough sell on television.
Andy Bernstein, "Street & Smith's Sports Business Journal" - Overall hockey ratings have declined over the last five years.
Ley - Today on Outside The Lines, with the league at its all-star break, I'll speak with Commissioner Gary Bettman as we continue the present and the future of the NHL.
Announcer - Outside The Lines is presented by State Farm Insurance. Joining us from ESPN Studios, Bob Ley.
Ley - Those old enough to remember a National Hockey League of the original 16s, a time before goalie masks and player helmets, before international rosters and satellite television, those fans don't have to be sold on the innate beauty of this game, its speed and power, the unsurpassed emotional explosion of a big goal, the exquisite tension of Stanley Cup overtime, and the gentlemanly grace of the handshake line.
Today, hockey is working overtime to sell itself. Long the stepchild of media and fan attention, the NHL this year has a billion-dollar player payroll. And more than any other sport, hockey has improved the attractiveness of its product through rules refinements. But the NHL may face greater challenges than any of the other three major sports.
One franchise, Mario Lemieux's Penguins, has just emerged from bankruptcy. And another, the Montreal Canadians, was sold this week far below market value.
Major players are missing most of if not entire seasons in contract disputes. Lisa Salters examines this sport where an unretired superstar is dominating play, and where the long struggle continues to expand the reach of this game.
Unidentified male - Shot it right through the top of the, score! The New Jersey Devils have won the Stanley Cup.
Lisa Salters, ESPN correspondent - An overtime goal in game six made the New Jersey Devils Stanley Cup champions of the 1999-2000 season. It was one of the most exciting finishes in NHL history.
But just a few months later, the game suffered a major black eye with the assault conviction of former Boston Bruin defense man Marty McSorley for this incident with Vancouver Canuck Donald Brashear.
Joe Starkey, "Pittsburgh Tribune-Review" - It was a lot of unwanted publicity for the NHL needless to say. I mean, it's a league that isn't in --"D" doesn't lead off a lot of highlight shows at night, the NHL. And all of a sudden it was for this incident.
Salters - Adding to the league's woes, the Flyers' Eric Lindros has not played this season. Lindros is not sitting out due to injury but because he has vowed never to play for Philadelphia again and is instead demanding to be traded to the Toronto Maple Leafs.
Eric Lindros, restricted free agent - I'd really like to play in Toronto. It's a great organization, a great city. And being from here, it just seems to be a good fit. I mean, I see it that way. And hopefully, we'll see what happens.
Bob Clarke, Flyers president and general manager - I don't like what Eric did to this club. But my responsibility is to the Philadelphia Flyers, not to Eric Lindros. And we're going to do what is right for the Flyers.
Al Morganti, ESPN hockey analyst - I don't think this issue is going to be settled this year. I think Lindros will probably go into the summer as a free agent. And then the Flyers will finally try to wrangle out of the Lindros side, the ability to trade him elsewhere other than Toronto.
Salters - But just when it appeared as though this could become a season to forget, along came Super Mario.
Lemieux - Well, obviously, we're here today to announce my attempt to come back to the National Hockey League.
Salters - That attempt has become nothing less than one of the greatest comeback stories in sports. Mario Lemieux's return has not only re-energized the Pittsburgh Penguins, but the entire NHL.
Starkey - We've seen 16 games now. And every single one of them has sold out, including places like Boston, Long Island, Washington and Phoenix, where on a lot of nights the peanut vendors sometimes outnumber the fans. So anywhere Mario goes, he's the greatest show on earth.
And people come out to watch him. So it's meant everything to the league.
Unidentified female - I'm from Cleveland. And I'm here. So -- I mean, I bought my boyfriend tickets for Christmas. And we drove all the way from Cleveland tonight just to see him.
Unidentified male - There he is, holds it, he shoots and scores.
Morganti - In more than one respect, this guy is a freak of nature, I mean, just the way he plays the game, and now the way he's become reborn as something that he wasn't before. The bonus the NHL got now is they got a superstar player who does not mind, in fact is encouraging, making himself an ambassador for the game.
Lemieux - I think everybody has to do their share, obviously, to go out and try to promote the game and make the game better. And that's all I care about, to improve the game and give some ideas to the NHL to try to make this game more exciting.
Unidentified male - He shoots and scores. And there's the hat trick.
Salters - Making the game more exciting. It's perennially at the top of the NHL's wish list, and for good reason. One key to any sport's success is the support of its fans. Another is a broadening fan base. Though league attendance is reported at 90 percent capacity, and fan turnout for the lineup of events this all star weekend has been enormous, overall television ratings continue to decline.
Starkey - The major reason why is because I don't think that hockey lends itself to television like the other sports do. I know that the puck is difficult to see, which is what they play the game with. And the game is difficult to follow on television. It's a game that you have to see in person to really appreciate.
Bernstein - Certainly, the NHL doesn't have the level of popularity that the NBA or Major League Baseball or the NFL have. And that's really what it comes down to.
But if you look at where the NBA grew up, it was through Magic and Michael and Larry Bird. And the NHL hasn't really had players fulfill that role. And it's difficult when you don't have personalities to get people to watch national telecasts.
Salters - Without TV revenues on par with other leagues, it may become more difficult for the NHL to continue to do business as usual. With the average player making $1.4 million a season and with no league salary cap, it's not surprising 20 teams lost money last year alone.
Bernstein - The NHL can't go on like this. Teams are losing money. They're spending too much on player payrolls. Revenues are not increasing at the rate they need to.
And the NHL, if you look at the entire league, is in a lot of trouble financially. There's no question about that.
Morganti - Before the next collective bargaining agreement, I think there is going to be a lot of arm wrestling about the situation. And I think a salary cap in some form or another is going to be absolutely demanded by ownership.
Salters - That ownership landscape is changing. Just this past week, the Montreal Canadians were sold to an American buyer. And by the end of this month, Wayne Gretzky will likely be one of the new owners of the Phoenix Coyotes. They are just two more pieces of the puzzle the NHL will have to work with as it continues to try to expand what has traditionally been a regional sport.
For Outside The Lines, I'm Lisa Salters.
Ley - And with the NHL at its all star break, I'll speak next with the commissioner of the National Hockey League, with a leading commentator, and a national hockey reporter.
Ley - The NHL at mid-season. All of our guests this morning are joining us from Denver where later today the All Star game is going to be played.
Gary Bettman just observed his eighth anniversary as the commissioner of the National Hockey League. He also worked 12 years with the NBA.
John Davidson played in goal for 11 seasons in the NHL. And he is an analyst for New York Ranger telecasts and a studio analyst for ABC Sports.
And Kevin Allen covers the National Hockey League for "USA Today." He has also written several books on the sport.
Gary, this is your weekend. Let's kick it off with you. I think you would have to agree Mario Lemieux may be the best thing that's happened you on your watch.
Gary Bettman, NHL commissioner - Actually, a lot of good things have happened on my watch. And we were having a really terrific season. Attendance was up. Ratings were solid. The game on the ice was great.
And Mario's coming back was really the icing on the cake. And it's frankly extraordinary in the history of sports to have not only an owner but an active Hall of Famer coming back and playing after a three-and-a-half-year layoff and playing at the level that he's playing at. It's been great.
Ley - We'll talk about him as an owner in a second. But, John Davidson, let's put Mario's return into a hockey context. Three-and-a-half years out and getting two points a night.
John Davidson, ABC Sports - That's a remarkable thing, Bob. I think that Mario himself, when you see him rededicate himself to becoming a player at this level again and seeing him accomplish what he has, it really is remarkable.
It also I think tells you that when you look at the great athletes across North America in particular over the last 40, 50, 60, 70 years, how many of those have there been? There's been a Gretzky and a Lemieux and Bobby Orr and Gordy Howe in hockey.
There's been Babe Ruth and now Mark McGwire. There's been some people like that. Of course, Michael Jordan in basketball. But there just hasn't been very many. And people come around and say, "You don't have enough Mario Lemieuxs in hockey."
I don't think they're right in saying that. I think there's been very few of those people in any sport ever. And to have Mario back the way he's come back has been just remarkable.
Ley - Well, Kevin, it's certainly a heartwarming story. He has beaten cancer. He has beaten, of course, major problems with his back. But let's ask the cynical question, what does it say about the level of play in a league that a guy can be out three-and-a-half years -- admittedly a great athlete -- and come back and dominate like this?
Kevin Allen, "USA Today" hockey writer - Well, I think what it says is what an unbelievable athlete he is. I mean, we all talk about the defensive coverage in this league and how strong it is and how difficult it is to score a goal.
This is a guy who's been gone for 44 months, trained for 44 days, and came back. I think all it says really is that he's an amazing athlete. I mean, John said it best. If you're talking Michael Jordan, Babe Ruth, anyone like that, there's been so few that have come along. And I think Mario Lemieux is going to do a lot for the league.
Ley - Gary, what do you say to Brett Hull, who yesterday said, "Mario is about the only guy in the league now who can guarantee a sellout."
Bettman - I don't think that that's a fair characterization. You know, Mario's coming back has really energized the buildings he's gone into because he creates the buzz because what he's done has been so special.
But the fact is, we played at 90 percent of capacity. We set attendance records in the history of the league for the months of December and January. This game is strong. This game has a great fan base.
And the product on the ice has probably never been better, which is what Mario's comeback also tells us because he left the game and now feels so good about the game he wanted to be part of it again.
Ley - John, what about the attempts for the league to open the game up, more free flowing, less of a defensive hockey?
Davidson - Well, Bob, I think if people out there have tapes of games from 15 or 20 years ago, stick them in your VCR machines and watch and then compare it to the game today. I watch hockey every night when I'm home. And I watch a lot of it.
There's 30 teams in this league. Sixteen are going to make the playoffs. That means games right now in the middle of the season are as important as any other time.
The teams know it. The coaches know it. And I'm seeing games of high quality that have been terrific to watch.
When I watched that opening piece, I'll be honest with you, I was a player. I've been a broadcaster now for a long period of time, I kind of got ticked off at it.
I think there has been some problems. I think there's been some issues. And I think they've been addressed. But the game on the ice right now I think is terrific.
Brett likes to talk. We all like to run over to him and listen to what he has to say. But the reality of it in my opinion is go watch Colorado play. Even the Rangers not winning have played some exciting hockey up until the last three weeks or so.
Pardon me, but I like the on-ice product right now. I really do. And compare it to 15 or 20 years ago, and you'll see a huge difference.
Ley - Kevin, how has this two-referee system worked to open up play?
Allen - Well, some of the coaches don't like it. They think there's some inconsistency with the seniority of referees. You have the older referees and the younger. Everyone is calling it a little bit different.
But I think if you look on balance, this has been great for the game. I mean, it's really cut down the extracurricular violence behind the play. And I think if you ask players, they really do like it.
They like to be able to play the game unimpeded. They like to not worry about getting slashed from behind. And to me, that's the key. I mean, when you have the two-referee system, four eyes certainly is better than two.
And they've done a pretty good job. There's still kinks in it. They're still trying to work it out. They didn't have the experienced referees they needed to run this, but always when you introduce a new system, there are going to be kinks in it.
Ley - One of the issues...
Bettman - Absolutely...
Ley - ... go right ahead.
Bettman - ... absolutely right. I'd like to add one thing on that. We had to double our staff over a three-year period. And while I acknowledge there may be some inconsistencies, Andy Van Hellemond and his supervisory staff is using more technology.
We're watching every game. Our officials are getting more supervision than ever before. And this system will only get better.
And, frankly, I'd rather have more inconsistencies in the short-term than missed calls. And with one referee, you're going to have a lot of missed calls. So we like what we're seeing. And it's also keeping our older referees working longer because the wear and tear on them isn't as great.
Davidson - And, you know, Bob, to compare it with another sport, they tell me, and people I've talked to regarding basketball, when they added the extra official, it took two or three years for them to get used to their new format.
And I think hockey is going through a learning process. And everybody seems to agree that it seems to be going in the right direction.
Ley - One of the issues that may actually be out of the hands of the referees is the issue of concussions. There have been so many.
Let's roll on a tape just from the last several days. On Thursday evening, Grant Marshall of Dallas takes a big hit from Owen Nolan. He is concussed in this hit along the sideboards. And Jaromir Jagr is not at the All Star game because of a hit he took from Todd Fedoruk of Philly. That was Wednesday evening.
J.D., are these players respecting each other as opponents as much as they used to when you played?
Davidson - Well, it's a very good question. I think for the majority of the players, they do have a great deal of respect for one another. I think there's people out there that lose their temper.
The size of the player over the last 10 years, 15 years, has gone up on average 15 pounds, maybe two inches in height. And they're much fitter. They're much more of a complete athlete than what they used to be.
The glass is different. The equipment is different.
And I think that the concussion problem that started last season in particular, the league has looked at it. They have a committee. They're trying to look at the glass problems, the bigger elbow pads. They're trying to be tougher with suspensions.
I suspect, and I haven't talked to anybody about it, but Owen Nolan with that hit on Grant Marshall, he's going to be rested probably close to eight, nine, 10, 12 games. And that's a suspension that he's earned with that hit to the face of Grant Marshall.
But I think the concussions happened. They're trying to figure out why. And I think because of their committee to fix the equipment, fix the glass, make it a lot safer for the players to play who will become much bigger.
And, again, I go back to that last theory about looking at games from quite a few years ago, these guys are huge. These guys are fast. And the impact is tough.
Ley - All right, let's -- I'll talk to the commissioner in just a second about that committee as they take a look at the protective equipment, the seamless glass, and all the other issues involving the NHL as we continue with Gary Bettman, John Davidson and Kevin Allen all from Denver on Outside The Lines.
Ley - More now with Gary Bettman, John Davidson and Kevin Allen. Let's get back to the commissioner.
Gary, you've got seamless glass. You've got elbow pads, shoulder pads. What could be done, what will be done, and when will changes happen?
Bettman - Actually, I appointed a committee last summer chaired by David Dryden that has representation from the Players Association, the players themselves, the trainers, the doctors, the equipment manufacturers, general managers and coaches. And what we're trying to do is gather as much data as possible to get a handle on the problem.
I actually attended an executive committee meeting of the committee on Friday. And the one thing that's clear with all the data that we gathered is there's no simple answer.
There's a lot of speculation, for example, about what happens when players hit the new glass and the new boards. And then we then reviewed the tapes of the concussions from last season. And it turns out that most of the concussions are occurring from open ice hits.
The thing that's absolutely clear is that nothing is clear. But I know that the doctors are telling me that no sports league has ever done as comprehensive a study as we're doing. We're going to get to the bottom of it.
But one thing with respect to concussions as vital is we're treating them more seriously and more carefully than ever before. We've had 67 concussions so far this year, which is on par with last year. It's not an epidemic that's increasing. But of those 67 concussions, 17 players haven't missed a game.
So we're diagnosing and treating more conservatively. And that may be something that's in the statistics. We're taking it seriously. And we're going to do what we can to make sure we reduce injuries.
Ley - Well, let's turn off the ice just for a second. Kevin Allen, the one date you hear when you talk to people around hockey is 2004. Labor contract expires, people are expecting Armageddon. And Gary just the other day -- and we'll get to him in a second on this -- mentioned the word cost certainty, which in most sports dictionaries means salary cap. Do you expect a war?
Allen - Oh, there's no question. I mean, I think if you look at the economics of the league, every team seems to be struggling.
You know, and it's funny, everyone talks about attendance. But attendance is really the strength of the league. But it also can create some problems.
I mean, I'm not an economist. But I watch TV and read the papers. There's a possible recession coming. The NHL has terrific corporate sponsorship. But if there's going to be a recession, that could hit the league hard.
But the guaranteed money in television isn't strong enough really to support the level of payroll they have. They've counted on this attendance.
And, you know, all the time when I talk to general managers, they talk about salary caps, salary caps, salary caps. But I think you also have to talk about revenue sharing, revenue sharing, revenue sharing, because if they go to the cap -- and I'm not an expert on the caps.
But if they go to the cap and the team caps out and they have difficulty trying to change the structure of their team in a gate-revenue-driven league, fans may go away. And the strength of this league is the attendance. And they're going to really need that.
So I think it's going to be a two-part solution in my opinion. If they're going to go down the road towards a salary cap, there has to be more revenue sharing.
Ley - So, Gary, do you have to reshape your economic model?
Bettman - Well, our economic model long-term will be one that enables all of our teams to be financially stable, viable and competitive where they're currently located. And that's obviously specifically addressed to small market teams, including our Canadian clubs.
Ley - One of which was just sold to an American for well below value, your marquis franchise.
Bettman - Actually, the team wasn't sold for well below value, the building was. And the building has questionable value because of the problems of Quebec and the city of Montreal were taxing the building at $11 million a year, which was three times more than all the U.S. teams combined.
We have issues in Canada relating to currency and relating to taxation which are directly attributable to the economic policies in Canada. But the team itself is one of the jewels in all of sports. And the price was more a reflection, as I said, of the value.
I think Kevin's statement that all of our teams are struggling isn't accurate. But the issue that I'm focused on long-term is the disparities.
Fortunately in our sport, payroll doesn't necessarily equate with performance. We have plenty of high payroll teams that don't make the playoffs.
Having said that, long-term we have to have a system that deals with the disparities and gives us a basis that enables all of our teams to be competitive. If the current agreement doesn't give us that, then we will have to get the type of system that does. And that will be something we'll as a league be committed to.
Ley - J.D., you've got to, of course, try and turn a profit, be fiscally prudent, but at the same time sell the sport, a sport where Eric Lindros is going to miss probably the whole season. You have the Ashton situation, Khabibulin, Peca out, star players, hard-line management attitudes about players wanting more money.
Davidson - Well, it's a combination there. Eric could be playing. He could be playing for the Philadelphia Flyers. But he's elected not to play for them. And he wants to play one specific city. So he's made his decision.
I can understand that that's what he wants to do. So be it. But I can also...
Ley - But isn't there a feeling though that hockey owners, though, have really across the board taken a pretty good hard line here?
Davidson - ... Oh, I think so. Well, OK, here's an example. I mean, in Buffalo with Michael Peca, they have gotten much closer in closing the gap to what Michael wants and to what Buffalo wants to pay him.
Buffalo's feeling is that, listen, we're in a smaller market area. We don't want to cave in to Michael Peca or we may find ourselves caving in to a bunch of other people.
What's Michael Peca's value? It's a tough question because there's a lot of intangibles involved when you talk about Michael as a player.
He doesn't have big numbers. But he's a quality person for that team. So they've got to close the gap.
A big story right now is Rob Blake playing in Los Angeles. He is not signed. He would be unrestricted come the end of the season, July 1 actually. And their ownership has said, "We will not pay a hockey player $10 million a year." So they're below that number.
Rob feels that since Pronger in St. Louis, a defensemen and a great player, signed for that number than that's where the bar is. So he may move out of Los Angeles with his own feelings of, "This is what I want to do. I'll get traded."
Ley - So the dollar signs?
Davidson - So the dollar signs to me are there for the guys. But they just may have to move around to get them.
Ley - And they're defining the future of the sport as much of the quality of play.
Gentlemen all, thank you very much.
Ley - We are out of time. Thank you.
Gary Bettman, congratulations on all star weekend. Have a good today.
J.D., have a good show.
And Kevin Allen, thank you very much for joining us as well.
We'll continue in just a second with Outside The Lines.
Ley - Outside The Lines is online at ESPN.com. The easiest way to get there, type the keyword otlweekly on the ESPN.com homepage. And you'll find our library of every program on Sunday morning, text and transcripts and streaming video. Our e-mail address for your comments, suggestions, and criticism - email@example.com.
Ley - We re-air today at 3 p.m. Eastern over on ESPN2. At 5 p.m. Eastern here on ESPN, it's "NFL Countdown" from Honolulu leading up to the Pro Bowl on ABC Sports at 5:30 Eastern time.
We will see you at our new time, 10:30 a.m. Sunday morning next week. I'll be talking live with Commissioner David Stern next week of the NBA All Star Break.
Next, the Mark Chmura verdict and the debut of the XFL. Brian and Robin and "SportsCenter."
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BROADCAST OF SUNDAY, FEB. 4, 2001
Host: Bob Ley, ESPN.
Story reported by: Lisa Salters, ESPN.
Guests: Gary Bettman, NHL commissioner; John Davidson, ABC Sports; Kevin Allen, USA Today.
Coordinating producer: Jonathan Ebinger, ESPN.