Latest meetings something to talk about

AL STRACHAN - Toronto Sun

, Last Updated: 1:27 PM ET

To the best of anyone's knowledge, National Hockey League commissioner Gary Bettman has graced a post-game dressing room only once. It was years ago in Winnipeg, when Bettman apparently didn't realize that he would be exposed to things like sweat, odours and blood. It was a mistake he didn't repeat.

So when players get a chance to talk to Bettman face to face, it is a rare event indeed. Even when players get a chance to explain their point of view in a meeting attended by Bettman, it is rare.

But both of circumstances occurred last week in Detroit and perhaps the game will be better for it.

At the meeting, Scott Niedermayer of the New Jersey Devils explained some of the finer points of the NHL defenceman's craft.

As an aside, it is reliably reported that Niedermayer's general manager, Lou Lamoriello, had to divert his eyes on a couple of occasions. Not only was Niedermayer giving away the secrets of how he bends the rules, he had long hair.

Lamoriello probably couldn't make up his mind which was the greater indiscretion. Tonsorial "guidelines" are rigidly controlled in New Jersey and to have Niedermayer show up with a hairdo like Michael Jackson's was not well received.

To make matters even worse, another one of Lamoriello's players, Martin Brodeur, is sporting a goatee. That may be all right for Team Canada, but it certainly wouldn't be all right for the Devils.

Unconcerned about the opinions of his GM (perhaps ex-GM), Niedermayer did a play-by-play of a videotape that showed him in action. "See that little tug on his sweater there?" asked Niedermayer. "Was that a penalty?

"Now look at this one. Is that a penalty?"

And so it went. The general managers had been expecting the seven players in attendance to throw up a roadblock to their attempts to streamline the game.

Instead, they got not only co-operation, but some eye-opening revelations. The players even revealed some of the ways that professionals get around the rules, and offered to provide tutorials on those well-guarded secrets.

Bettman was in that meeting and heard the players' contributions. Then he went out with them for dinner in the evening and got another earful.

One of the primary topics this time had to do with Olympic participation. The players are strongly in favour of it. In fact, that's one of the reasons that many of them are taking part in the world championship. They want to earn a spot on the team for the 2006 Olympics.

The International Olympic Committee and the International Ice Hockey Federation also are strongly in favour of NHL involvement. Bettman won't say he's opposed, but he always expresses uncertainty. It's difficult, he says, to convince the owners to shut down their league for two weeks.

The implication is that the league will suffer decreased attendance because of Olympic participation. As is so often the case with Bettman's assertions concerning the state of the game, the numbers don't support his stance.

A comparison of the average attendance in the four days immediately prior to the 1998 Olympics to the four days afterward shows an increase in NHL attendance, not a decrease.

The same is true of a similar span on either side of the 2002 Salt Lake City OIympics.

Of greater concern to Bettman are the U.S. network ratings. But in 2002, ABC did two games before the Olympics with a rating of 1.2 in the top 53 American markets. In the network's third game -- right after the Olympics -- the rating was 1.8, an increase of 50%.

The more communication there is between the various parties the more likely it is that the league will run smoothly.

The Detroit experience was a novel one for both sides. It is to be hoped that the benefits were duly noted.


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