SUN Hockey Pool

League is in for big shakeup

STEVE SIMMONS -- Toronto Sun

, Last Updated: 9:07 AM ET

Away from the secretive airport meeting in Chicago, which may or may not have solved anything yesterday, are plans to relaunch a new National Hockey League.

That is the word Gary Bettman has used in more than one private conversation. It is the word some television executives have been throwing around quietly.

That is the same word Bill Daly has denied hearing.

Typically, somebody out there in hockey land isn't telling the whole story until there's a story to be told and the new NHL, whenever it returns to the ice, should have a different look and some unexpected new wrinkles. Even the Bettmans and the Dalys, hard-headed as they seem sometimes, understand this much: The NHL can't return and just announce it's time to play again. Economics aside, they are looking at being further irrelevant than they are now in too many places, unless drastic change is made.

The first drastic change will begin with finances. At least yesterday, with commissioner Bettman and NHL Players' Association boss Bob Goodenow probably watching through some kind of mini-cam, the first actual dialogue of the lockout took place. Okay, maybe there wasn't any negotiating, but at least there wasn't any of that moronic name calling.

And at least there is another meeting today.

That by itself has to be considered progress. Whether there is any -- or enough -- momentum to carry that toward a solution under the tightest of time frames is still anyone's guess. The betting here, as it has always been, is there will not be a season.

The odds just happened to get lowered after union president Trevor Linden tried to do something Goodenow could not. He tried to act like a partner instead of a bulldozer. He decided to listen rather than speak. He asked questions rather than lecture.

DESPERATE PLAYERS

Linden, who has been widely credited with making this forward step in a process of little sanity, was simply responding to the many pleas he has heard from desperate hockey players and angry player agents who are ready to deal -- who don't want, or can't afford, this season to be wiped out.

At least, Linden called the right people in an attempt to steer the non-negotiations toward a common ground they have yet to know. This was not one side making an offer and the other side flatly rejecting it. There was not any of the usual and childish name-calling that has accompanied the previous offers made by either side. There was a whole lot of "respect for the process" in a process that has been terribly lacking in respect.

So for now, the game waits. The marketing people wait. The new NHL, maybe this year, maybe next year, who knows when, is plotted out but in need of delivery.

A league that will have more bells and whistles than it had before. A league that will set out to try and appease its Canadian fans while starting all over again with the Americans who have abandoned it. A league that will attempt to market its stars, even if so many of them have difficulty speaking the language. A league that will likely add shootouts and eliminate the red line all in the name of excitement.

The timing of these meetings is interesting on a broader scale: In the best hockey markets in America -- in Philadelphia, in Boston, in Detroit -- the NHL is barely a blip on the radar scale these days. In Philly, the Eagles are a game away from the Super Bowl. In Boston, after a Red Sox World Series win and the Patriots re-defining for all of sport what a team really is, the Bruins are, like the NHL, completely irrelevant. If that's the tone of hockey in the best markets, imagine how far it has fallen in places where it is marginal in its best days?

The players, desperate to get a deal and done and unable to understand why their rollbacks were not accepted, have a great deal to lose with a season lost. But the owners, searching for the elusive cost certainty and an idiot-proof system, lose every day the game isn't played.

So the beat goes on. Another meeting today. Who knows what to believe anymore?


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