- The Washington Times - Tuesday, July 26, 2005

The most important story in the NHL in recent weeks - other than this business about a labor settlement being reached - concerns a population explosion in a pocket of British Columbia. Seems the maternity ward at Prince George Regional Hospital has been overflowing since late April, and a hospital spokesperson wonders whether the locals might not have replaced “Hockey Night in Canada” last season with “Hokey-Pokey Night in Canada.”

The hospital usually has “60 to 80” births a month, the ward’s patient manager, Val Stewart, told Canadian Press, but lately the figure has been hovering around 100. “There’s no way to prove it,” she said, “but … when you think about it and start counting, it’s been about nine months since [the players were locked out].”

So there’s one good thing about the NHL’s Lost Season - while the sport was on sabbatical, more fans were created. There’s a flip side to it, though. With another mouth to feed, Mr. and Mrs. Hockey Nut might have to give up their season tickets, opt for 10-game plans. Fortunately for them, teams are talking about cutting their prices as a conciliatory gesture to the forsaken masses.

That’s right, puck partisans, the NHL is back - after instituting so many changes, on ice and off, that it’s barely recognizable. Let’s talk about the financial end of it first because that’s what the argument was all about. In the simplest terms, the players got led down the garden path by a union head who turned out to be George Armstrong Custer. Sure, free agency is granted earlier under the new CBA, but clubs are going to be much more limited in what they spend because of the salary cap.

Consider: In 2003-04, their last season of operation, the Capitals’ 10 highest-paid players made a total of $39,432,000. That would actually put the Caps over the salary cap ($39 million) this year. When Gary Bettman says the league is “implementing rule changes that will emphasize offense and flow,” you’re not sure he doesn’t mean the flowing of the players’ blood. Between the dough Olie Kolzig missed out on last season, for instance, and the 24 percent rollback he’s facing this year, your favorite goalie has kissed about $8 million goodbye. And some guys are even worse off than he is.

So it’s hard to tell whether the players will return to the ice hungrier or just dazed and confused. I mean, there hasn’t been a union slapped around like this since the air-traffic controllers.

Ted Leonsis plans to keep his payroll close to the minimum, “$21.5 million to $25 million,” in the first season of the new agreement. Two years ago, of course, that kind of money wouldn’t have covered his starting lineup. It’s easier for him to economize now, though; George McPhee got rid of most of the team’s biggest paychecks (Jaromir Jagr, Robert Lang, Peter Bondra, Sergei Gonchar, Michael Nylander, Mike Grier) before the lockout. Aside from Kolzig and Brendan Witt, the top-paid Cap under contract is probably the Zamboni driver ($1 for the first 10th of a mile, 25 cents for every 10th thereafter).

As for the NHL’s proposed rule changes, they’re intriguing to say the least. I’m a little worried, though, that with less room behind the goal, players might get stuck between the net and boards and have to be extricated by the Jaws of Life. Also, with goalies not being allowed to handle the puck as much as before, Olie might never score another empty-netter. Think what that might mean to the Caps’ offense.

But I’m glad to see the size of the goaltenders’ pads reduced - along with the rest of their attire. Goalies shouldn’t look like an advertisement for the Big & Tall Men’s Shop. And these shootouts to settle ties could be fun, especially if players who score the winning goal whip off their tops like Brandi Chastain.

(That might be easier said than done, though, since some of them - impoverished by the new pay scale - will be wearing barrels.)

The owners, you’ll notice, didn’t do everything in their power to juice up the offense. They didn’t, for example, switch to the larger, international ice surface - probably because it would have cost them a couple of rows of seats. But they did eliminate the two-line pass by essentially erasing the red line. (Just, alas, when I was beginning to understand what the two-line pass was.)

And how’s this for drama? With the new scheduling philosophy - more in-conference games, fewer out-of-conference ones - it’s possible the two clubs that reach the Stanley Cup Finals will be meeting for the first time all season. I’m tellin’ ya, it’s enough to make you excited about hockey again. More importantly, though, it might be enough to alleviate the serious overcrowding in that maternity ward up north.

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