- The Washington Times - Tuesday, October 4, 2005

NEW YORK — Maybe by the time the NHL takes its Olympic break in February, some of the burning questions facing the relaunched league will have been answered.

Teen phenom Sidney Crosby will have a few months under his belt as he tries to show he can live up to comparisons to Mario Lemieux and Wayne Gretzky.

Gretzky, meanwhile, will be busy with his first job as an NHL coach.

They’ll all be working under a new set of rules created to spark offensive excitement in a game that has gotten stale. It’s part of a plan to bring fans to arenas and television sets.

But if the interest is there, will people even find the games on their cable lineup?

And after a year without the NHL, will they even care to try?

Tomorrow the NHL returns to the ice 16 months after its last real game. All 30 teams will be in action.

Done is the talk of collective bargaining agreements, salary caps, lockouts and cries of financial distress. The rich teams appear to be showing signs of weakness, while some small-market clubs have begun to inherit the hockey Earth.

“No one likes the business side of sports,” Dallas forward Mike Modano said. “Finally the game has gone to the forefront, the business part is over with.”

Tie games have gone the way of inflated payrolls. Shootouts will be used to break all regular-season deadlocks not settled in overtime, and goalies with have to play with smaller equipment and leave alone pucks that go into the corners.

Crosby will be welcomed to Pittsburgh, the town that had the NHL’s worst team in the spring of 2004 but now perhaps has one of its best. The No. 1 pick in this year’s draft landed with the Penguins after a lottery, and now will play with owner-Hall of Famer Lemieux — and even live in his house.

But the Penguins didn’t stop. They squeezed top forwards Mark Recchi, John LeClair and Ziggy Palffy, defenseman Sergei Gonchar and goalie Jocelyn Thibault into the new $39 million salary cap that was at the heart of last year’s labor battle.

While the spending went on in western Pennsylvania, big-market clubs such as the Detroit Red Wings, Philadelphia Flyers and New York Rangers tried to figure ways to improve but also trim fat from payrolls that were nearly twice the now-allowed level.

The Flyers waived goodbye to LeClair, Jeremy Roenick and Tony Amonte but got creative in adding Peter Forsberg and top defensemen Derian Hatcher and Mike Rathje. They expect to contend with a new look, one they hope will carry them farther than Game 7 of the Eastern Conference finals, where their season ended in 2004.

A flurry of player movement started in August and provided a week crazier than a fantasy league draft.

The Stanley Cup champion Tampa Bay Lightning had goalie Nikolai Khabibulin leave for Chicago, Paul Kariya landed in Nashville, Eric Lindros finally found his way to the Maple Leafs and Norris Trophy winner Scott Niedermayer left New Jersey for Anaheim, where he will play with his brother, Rob.

Defending Western Conference champion Calgary locked up captain Jarome Iginla with a long-term deal just as the Lightning did with forwards Martin St. Louis and Vincent Lecavalier. But those signings made it impossible for Tampa Bay to keep Khabibulin, too.

“It’s kind of a crapshoot right now,” said defenseman Chris Pronger, now of the Edmonton Oilers. “Teams that have chemistry early on and are able to gel and adapt to the rule changes and everything are really going to be able to take off early on in the season and try to get a little bump or cushion for the dog days of January and February, when teams usually get into a little bit of a malaise.”

That’s perfect timing for the break that allows NHL players to participate in the 2006 Turin Olympics.

There won’t be an All-Star game this season or in 2010, when the games come to Vancouver.

While Crosby gets his career underway tomorrow at New Jersey, Philadelphia will host the Rangers in the first NHL broadcast on OLN — the league’s new cable partner.

A long-standing relationship with ESPN came to an end shortly after the new CBA was reached. Instead of taking a cut-down deal with the well-established network, the NHL signed with OLN, which is trying to broaden its sports horizons well beyond Lance Armstrong and the Tour de France.

While the money was in the range the NHL was seeking, the league is taking a risk because OLN reaches far fewer customers.

The NHL is campaigning to win back the fans it hurt and angered during its lost season, while also trying to win over casual watchers.

“The people who are excited about it and ready to come back, we’re extremely lucky to have them,” Dallas forward Bill Guerin said. “The ones who are upset, we’re going to do everything in our power to make them happy and get them back in the arenas.”

Placating old fans might prove an easier task than attracting those people who didn’t miss the league at all. What might help is the increased importance placed on division games. Rivalries will be heightened as teams will play the other four clubs in their division eight times each.

“Everybody was concerned with how the game was going to come back, and I think everybody in our locker room is willing to do whatever it takes to make sure the game comes back strong,” Guerin said.

It’s certainly coming back different.

More room was created in the offensive zone, at the expense of the neutral zone and space behind each goal. Defenseman now are allowed to fire home-run passes from end to end, because the red line has been removed — enabling passes across two lines.

But defensemen will have to chase the puck more often, too, because goalies have been limited to where they can play it.

Goaltenders must stay within a trapezoidal area when playing pucks below the goal line, which will force defensemen to backtrack more to get to dump-ins. More pressure will be created by onrushing forwards, which should lead to mistakes and scoring chances.

“There are going to be races. There are going to be collisions,” said Stephen Walkom, the new director of officiating.

There will also be a lot of penalties as players get used to a strict crackdown on interference and unnecessary clutching and grabbing.

Rangers forward Jaromir Jagr went to the penalty box with his arms outstretched this week after being whistled for an infraction he had no idea he committed. But if it leads to the wide-open game that produced the Oilers’ dynasty in the 1980s, then maybe the NHL will be onto something.

Gretzky starred on that team, along with the recently retired Mark Messier, who called it quits at age 44 after 25 NHL seasons. Just as Messier departs, Gretzky gets back near the ice as the coach of the Phoenix Coyotes.

He isn’t the only new face behind an NHL bench. Some familiar names are showing up in different places. Mike Babcock left Anaheim to take over the Detroit Red Wings from Dave Lewis. Larry Robinson is back with the Devils, a team he led to a Stanley Cup title.

Whether old or new, everyone will feel the burden of making hockey relevant. That was a problem long before the NHL became the first North American sports league to lose an entire season to a labor dispute.

“Hockey fans are true-blue fans,” Roenick said. “They’re going to come back in droves.”

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