A sense of optimism

Almost everyone in the hockey community seems to be expecting a new labour deal to be struck before...

Almost everyone in the hockey community seems to be expecting a new labour deal to be struck before July 1, according to Al Strachan. (Toronto Sun File/Fred Thornhill)

AL STRACHAN -- Toronto Sun

, Last Updated: 1:06 PM ET

Considering the gloom and doom that surrounds the National Hockey League, the level of optimism within the game itself is astonishingly high.

In the past two weeks or so, more and more players have swung over to the let's-get-it-done approach, and told their representatives at the NHL Players' Association to get the best possible deal but do it quickly.

Some players, such as Brendan Morrison of the Vancouver Canucks and Bryan McCabe of the Maple Leafs, have articulated those views publicly, but there are many others, even some who were among the most militant a few weeks ago, who have now joined the pragmatists.

There aren't many secrets within the NHL community, and now, almost everyone seems to be expecting the new deal to be struck before the month is over. Even though a report of the salary-cap issue having been settled turned out to be premature, progress is being made.

But the optimism goes far beyond the mere existence of a collective bargaining agreement.

There is a sense on both sides that the game can sink no lower. Its support in the United States is close to non-existent; commissioner Gary Bettman has parlayed the once-lucrative network-television packages into nothing more than a memory; the league was so eager to win the public-relations battle in Canada that it did so by alienating the fans against the players and as a result, many of the formerly faithful are swearing that they won't return.

But against this bleak backdrop, there is an attitude that the NHL can only get better and that there is a league-wide commitment to making that happen.

The rule changes will not only be so sweeping that they should make the game exciting again, they will have the support of everyone involved -- at least until the first time the Maple Leafs take an interference penalty at a crucial point in the game.

There is a consensus that a dramatic makeover is needed and that after a year of inactivity, the timing is perfect. The widely held vision is the new rules will be a long overdue cure for many of the game's ailments.

The salaries will not be what the players wanted, but the system that is being hammered out is one that will allow higher salary-cap ceilings if the owners' revenues rise. As a result, the players will not return with a sense of animosity but with a desire to make the game more attractive to the fans and hence more profitable to the owners.

There already has been agreement among the players that they will become much more accessible and there is an agreement among the owners that any general manager who tries to thwart that development will not be allowed to do so.

In the past, accessibility rules have been ignored and the league, to its own detriment, has done nothing about it.

In NASCAR, you can be given the view from the car. In baseball, the managers give TV interviews between innings. In the NFL, the coaches answer questions at the half.

But in hockey, the TV broadcasters often couldn't even get the coach to identify the starting goalie on the morning of the game. And if they did, they were often told that starting goalies don't do interviews on game day.

For the most part, this problem was imposed by the GMs, not the players themselves. But both sides agree that if this game is to be sold, it is the players who will have to do it. And serious steps will be taken to bring that about.

Of all the sports, hockey has the most insightful and articulate athletes. As a result, hockey is more blessed than any of its competitors when it comes to people who can promote the game from within. But under the Bettman regime, those athletes increasingly have been hidden from the media -- and hence from the fans.

In the past couple of weeks, a new attitude has emerged within the hockey world. There is a mutual sense of purpose that even borders on eager anticipation.

The NHL will be back next season, and in the not-too-distant future, the specifics will be made public. And after that, everyone seems to agree, it will get steadily better.


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