New NHL really works

MIKE ULMER -- Toronto Sun

, Last Updated: 10:52 AM ET

PITTSBURGH -- Backlash? What backlash?

NHL commissioner Gary Bettman said there has been no cold shoulder from fans after a lockout aborted the 2004-2005 season.

"Actually based on all the indications we have so far, season ticket sales are up 3% and individual game sales are up pretty significantly as well," said Bettman.

"We think attendance should be comparable if not better than in 2003-04."

Raise your hand if you read comments from players, owners, marketers, writers, coaches and msytics of all denominations who predicted it would take years to recover from the nuclear winter of a last season.

Yeah, me too.

There were frets about a betrayed fan base and lost links with the corporate support.

What about all those fans in the Carolina, Florida and even Tampa, left wondering about the fuss over that big silver thing with the bowl and all the names on it. Would the casual fan, or even those not wearing leisure suits, come back.

Turns out it wasn't true. None of it.

"I think the rancour wasn't coming from the fans," Bettman said.

"It wasn't the feedback we were getting and that was based anecdotally, on e-mails and letters and the research we've been doing."

That only leaves the pundits for all that negative speak. I blame the media for a great number of things, global warming included, but I don't think anyone missed the boat by predicting a comeuppance from the paying customer.

Let's review.

The owners signed a catastrophic business deal, saw their profits siphoned away by the brotherhood of guys who choose their leader by conference call, put teams in so many imponderable places the next expansion candidate is Great Neck, invoked a one-year shutdown, and then beat the players senseless.

Now, based on some progressive rules changes and kid of sexy ads and a deal with the Outdoor Life Newtork, the game is headed for renewal?

Man, whoever drew this up on the chalkboard deserves a raise.

Damned it it doesn't all seem to be working, though.

There have been waves of chances in the games I've seen this season.

Defensive players with poor position are basically hoping to head off attacking players at the crease.

They are probably already playing a man down and it's better to concede the chance to goalies who are making more saves on breakaways than on Showdown In The NHL.

"It's hard to break old habits," said Penguins coach Ed Olczyk, "but I think they're starting to put their head down, skate back and say 'I'll live to fight another day.'"

The action has made heroes of scorers and goalies alike.

The gap between the top goalies and those in the middle has never been more apparent.

The Panthers Roberto Luongo had a 148-minute shutout streak and Cam Ward has been exceptional in the early going for the Carolina Hurricanes.

Bettman vows none of the backslides that characterized past lost battles against obstruction.

Yes, the blizzard of penalty calls impedes flow, although nowhere near as much as Bryan Marchment.

Bettman is already braced for the Let Them Play critics that are sure to climb aboard this fall.

"To let them play, you've got to hold the standard," he said.

"In other words, to give the skill players the room to move with the puck, to set up plays, to get scoring chances, you've got to call it."

Remember the projected shortfall in revenues, the one that would result in a freefalling salary cap.

Not to worry, said the Happy Commissioner.

"It's going to be somewhere in the ballpark that we projected.Whether its a little higher or a little lower its way too early."

Happy fans. A media that has lots its bray. A salary cap. These are wondrous times for Gary Bettman.

Makes you wonder what Bob Goodenow is doing right now.


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