SUN Hockey Pool

Gary's glitter ...

ROBERT TYCHKOWSKI -- Edmonton Sun

, Last Updated: 1:45 PM ET

Gary Bettman will walk into Rexall Place this evening and not, as many anticipated, be carried in on a throne, like Cleopatra, behind grateful hockey fans laying him a path of rose petals.

And we'll have to wait at least six years before we find out whether or not half the Grade One boys in Edmonton are named Gary.

But make no mistake, this is a love-in. The NHL commissioner returned here yesterday like a victorious general touring the land he just liberated.

"I'm the one who's fortunate to be here. I've always said that if the NHL doesn't work here it wasn't going to work anywhere,'' Bettman told a media conference before speaking at a Chamber of Commerce luncheon.

"Which is why we were so committed to creating a new environment and a new era for the game to move forward.''

It is a new era beyond any small market hockey fan's wildest expectations. Bettman prefers to talk about the new landscape in terms of a partnership with the players rather than an overwhelming triumph over their union, but one look at the state of the game today tells you all you need to know about who won and who lost.

There is parity, financial sanity, Edmonton has stopped its bleeding and is now contending for first in the conference. Hockey is as fast and entertaining as it's been in 15 years, Bob Goodenow is out of the picture and the NHLPA is waging a nasty civil war.

How, when things looked so sad and desperate 12 months ago with the cancellation of a season, did they get to this?

"It was a confluence of things that ultimately got us through this process,'' said Bettman.

"Did it come from the fact that the system was so badly broken that we knew we had to fix it? Did it come from the fact that the owners, 30 owners, were unified in purpose and goal and mission? Did it come from the fact that ultimately the players decided this was the right way to go and wanted to partner with us? You can't point to any one factor.''

But if he had to, he'd point to you. You didn't panic, you didn't pressure the owners to cave just for the sake of saving a season and you didn't turn your back on the NHL upon its resurrection.

"You have to point to the fans in how we can look at the new era. We have the best fans in all sports.''

The visit by Bettman and right hand man Bill Daly comes with Edmonton playing as well as anyone in the league - and all Canadian teams in a position to make the playoffs, which hasn't happened since 1985-86. Canadian buildings are packed every night and TV ratings are through the roof.

"But by no means do I, or anybody else at the league or club level, sit here and say 'Gee, isn't this great' with a big smile on our face,'' he said. "There will continue to be a lot of hard work necessary to sustain the momentum.''

He's right. As much as we like to trumpet this as a monumental breakthrough, all they did was win the battle for responsible business practices. That's no small accomplishment considering the previous state of the NHL (it's like saying all you did was turn on the oxygen when the patient was choking to death), but there's a long way to go before all is well.

The Oilers are still only breaking even, there's no major U.S. television deal yet and there are attendance sags in several markets. And Lord in Heaven they have to bring back fighting.

"I don't extol that things are wonderful,'' said Bettman. "I think the vital signs are strong. But the fact we're not sitting here, like we have in the past, talking about doom and gloom doesn't mean that we take anything for granted.''

Especially the players.

"All of this that we're talking about, the economic framework, the stability, the competitiveness, the redistribution of talent, the new rules, the enforcement standard of the old rules, all of this works because there's a partnership with the players and because they have bought into our joint mission.''

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THEY SAID IT

- "A woman behind the bench, she was yelling at us, telling us we aren't going to make the playoffs. I appreciate that she's passionate, but it's a very long road.'' - Bruins defenceman Hal Gill on the mood in Boston.

- "I came over to the bench and asked what to do. I got some bad advice. They told me to shoot right at his pads." - Chris Phillips after missing his first ever NHL penalty shot.

- Are hockey players tough? After getting three teeth knocked out by a Milan Hejduk high stick, Joe Thornton had this to say: "Could be worse. Could be five.''

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T'S TOP FIVE

Top five reasons why my fantasy hockey team is in the toilet:

5 - Vaclav Prospal? He's only had more than 55 points once in his career. Let's see what we can get for him.

4 - Thank goodness Briere is cooking. Huh? What's a sports hernia? Geez, Danny, try stretching before the game.

3 - That Vorobiev kid in Chicago could be a real sleeper.

2 - Now that Martin Havlat's served his suspension, it'll be smooth sailing. Huh? Shoulder surgery? Late March?

1 - If Rick Nash doesn't win the Rocket Richard trophy, I'll eat a bug.

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T'S TEAM OF THE WEEK

C - SCOTT GOMEZ (DEVILS): Thirteen points in his last five games ... after 25 in the previous 36.

RW - NILS EKMAN (SHARKS): Just one goal in his last four games, but eight assists in the last two.

LW - CORY STILLMAN (HURRICANES): 10 points in his last four outings, but minus three in that span.

LD - TOMAS KABERLE (Maple Leafs): Riding a four game point-scoring streak (6 points) on a hot Leaf team.

RD - JOE CORVO (KINGS): Has only been a minus player twice in his last 22 games.

G - RYAN MILLER (SABRES): Comes back from a lengthy injury and goes 5-0-1, allowing two or fewer goals five times.

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T'S QUOTE OF THE WEEK

"Not having to negotiate with agents was the best part of the job.''

- Atlanta and Team USA GM Don Waddell tells the Miami Herald about his Olympic selection process.


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