- The Washington Times - Thursday, February 12, 2004

Eleven years almost to the day since he took over as the NHL’s first commissioner, Gary Bettman finally has taken command of the 30-team league. That, of course, begs an answer to the question of why it took so long for him to exercise authority.

Faced with declining revenue, attendance and TV ratings, and with the company line that everything is OK not being bought by anybody, Bettman hustled the league’s 30 general managers straight from the All-Star Game in St. Paul, Minn., to Henderson, Nev., to discuss ways to put some life back into the game.

But this was more than just a round-table gathering of old buddies. Bettman apparently told the group they were there fighting to keep their league a viable operation on the professional sports face of North America. He sent them into a room and gave them three days to come up with some realistic proposals to wipe out the notion that aging skaters were plodding along on double-runners in a sea of mush.

It took the GMs two days to get the job done, two days to start moving this tradition-bound league out of the 1950s and into the sunlight.

Throughout the course of its modern history the NHL has flip-flopped repeatedly, usually whenever faced with the prospect of change creeping in. Rules were changed not for the betterment of the sport overall but to penalize individual teams that had gotten too good in one phase of the game. It didn’t matter that a team’s domination in that one area had been done legally and usually as a result of hard work, it mattered only that the organization had to be reigned in.

What Bettman said was that this self-centered approach had to be abandoned if the sport were to be saved from itself. What the GMs were told was they had to act in unison to return the NHL to the type of sport it once was — where tickets were hard to come by, where there was excitement with every rush up the ice. What Bettman seemingly told the GMs was what the GMs have been telling rookies for decades: It’s either this or you’ll be pumping gas in Oshawa.

The target was easy. With scoring down to an average of five goals a game, a 50-year-low, netminders were the obvious target because goalies as a group had made progress toward doing their jobs better within the rules while scorers were shooting blanks. So for the first time since Ron Hextall was initially credited with a shot on goal during the mid-‘80s, something was being done to stop goalies from dominating the game, as some do now.

Goalies no longer will be allowed to play the puck behind the goal line, which has turned many of them into third defensemen who can handle pucks better than some skaters. The proposal doesn’t say goalies can’t be behind the goal line, which means they can still play a role blocking the progress of the opposition and not be touched.

The width of goalies’ pads will be reduced from 12 inches to 10, the size they were in the late ‘80s, but the size of the cages (6-by-4 feet) remains the same.

The “tag-up” rule for offsides will be reinstated, thus maintaining the flow of the game and making it quicker. And the NHL will use next season as a test with the American Hockey League for widening the red and blue lines, as well as experimenting with a shootout system to eliminate ties. The shootout is not the most desirable way to settle things, but fans love it and it is the fans, after all, who pay the bills.

Which brings us back to the original point: Why did Bettman wait 11 years to put his foot down and demand something positive be done immediately? Why do general managers sit around in meeting rooms four or five times a year in places like Bermuda or West Palm, accomplishing nothing constructive while waiting for the greens to dry so golf can resume?

If the league can vault ahead as it did during a two-day period earlier this week with some gentle prodding from the commissioner, think what it could get done if it really decided to show up ready to work? And if Bettman and the general managers can finally get something done, maybe they can share their secret with the hierarchy of the players’ union and avoid a work stoppage in September. That would really be something.

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