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NHL Lockout dooms season, but rule changes ahead



Published: Wed, February 23, 2005 @ 12:00 a.m.



Commissioner Gary Bettman wants to make the game more fan-friendly.

PITTSBURGH (AP) -- The changes might be drastic enough to tempt 44-year-old Wayne Gretzky into coming out of retirement.

After years of lobbying for a more scoring-friendly and fan-appealing league, Hall of Famer Mario Lemieux is convinced the NHL is ready to grant his wish. The only problem is ending the lockout that has doomed this NHL season and could threaten another before owners and players agree on a labor contract.

The 39-year-old Lemieux hopes he has some more goals left in him when it happens, now that the league seems determined to crack down on the on-ice mugging and the defend-every-inch-of-ice defenses that have made NHL shootouts as rare as football single-wing offenses.

The scoring dropoff is so acute that only Tampa Bay's Martin St. Louis (94 points) had 90 points last season -- not even half of Gretzky's 215 in 1985-86 or Lemieux's 199 in 1988-89. In only 10 years, the NHL has seen its goals-per-game average drop from 7 to 5.

With the NHL desperate to rebuild its fan base and increase national TV ratings that were lower than Arena Football's, commissioner Gary Bettman is promising drastic rules changes to bring back the speed, flow and offensive rhythm that have been missing since Gretzky was in his prime.

Lemieux's reply: What took so long?

"There's been a lot of talk about making the game more exciting, opening up the game, bringing back the offense that was there in the 1980s and early 1990s," said Lemieux, the Penguins' player-owner. "It's going to be a lot more exciting when the NHL comes back. It's going to be a great game with, hopefully, a lot more scoring and a lot of offense ... and [less] clutching and grabbing."

Experiment

Many of the new rules are being tried this season in the AHL, which expects to have at least two 100-point scorers (Binghamton's Jason Spezza and Manchester's Mike Cammalleri) and possibly more. Among them are shootouts to decide overtime ties, wider blue lines that increase the size of the neutral zone, less distance between the nets and the end boards, smaller goaltending gear, no-touch icing and tag-up offsides.

The NHL is also toying with eliminating the red line, thus doing away with the dreaded two-line passing rule and creating the end-to-end breaks so common in international play.

NHL vice president Colin Campbell met last month with six coaches to discuss the planned relaunch, saying even fans of winning teams were complaining about the dull style of play.

"My gut tells me we will be playing [next season], and the game will be better," Minnesota Wild president Doug Risebrough said. "We have to build the game and built it around the fans."

Because of the NHL's traditionally strong fan base in cities such as Detroit, Toronto, Denver, Philadelphia and Montreal, experts say the first shutdown of a major North American sports league for a full season may not devastate the league. While baseball attendance dropped about 20 percent after its 1994-95 strike, hockey attendance increased 10 percent following a half-season shutdown in 1994-95.




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