NHL season offered much, but problems cloud big picture
Updated 11:29 AM ET April 10, 2000
This NHL season has been like the proverbial little girl with the
curl: When it has been good, it has been absolutely exhilarating.
When it was bad, it made horrible headlines. Most times, we got a
little bit of both. Always, it was interesting.
It began last September amid notorious contract disputes and a free-
agent freeze-out as a league awash in red ink tried to stop the out-
of-control spiral of player salaries. It ended with some of the most
provocative playoff races -- conference by conference, top to bottom,
division by division -- in recent memory.
In between, a redefined crease rule, four-on-four overtime hockey and
the advent of the three-point game had a dramatic affect on the games
and the standings. Scoring was up and, thanks in large part to the
implementation of the two-referee system, penalty minutes were down
and the games were shorter, with better pace. Attendance, despite
dips in some key markets, is at record levels again, and TV ratings
are up as well.
Some incredible milestones were reached along the way: Detroit
captain Steve Yzerman passed 600 goals, 900 assists and 1,500 points;
Brett Hull also passed 600 goals, then caught his father, Bobby, in
the NHL record books at 610; Pat Verbeek scored his 500th goal, and
Ray Bourque, Joe Sakic and Brendan Shanahan all scored their 400th;
and Patrick Roy continued his relentless pursuit of Terry Sawchuk,
pulling within three of the all-time victories leader.
"The league and the game have never been bigger or stronger,"
commissioner Gary Bettman said in a season-ending state-of-the-NHL
briefing with reporters this week. "But ... "
But the game was not without major problems. Off the ice, two
prominent players missed the entire season in contract disputes, and
economic calamities threatened the very existence of five of the six
Canadian clubs. Ottawa captain Alexei Yashin walked out on the final
year of a contract scheduled to pay him $3.6 million, and now the
dispute is headed for the courtroom in what might be a landmark case.
Phoenix goaltender Nikolai Khabibulin couldn't come to terms with his
club, so he wound up playing in the International Hockey League.
Several other prominent free agents discovered the pot at the end of
the rainbow had been raided, and wound up signing for far less than
expected -- some of them months into the season -- causing whispers
among the players and their agents that the teams were colluding
against them. The league's position is that teams, other than the
spendthrift New York Rangers, were just being fiscally responsible
for once. This isn't such a bad thing, though, because average team
payrolls increased only 4.5 percent -- the lowest after a decade of
annual double-digit increases.
On the ice, despite all the wonderful individual performances and
great games that led to exciting races, there seems to be a growing
problem of workplace violence that threatens the league's popularity
as it strives to take root across America's Sun Belt. What many
players believe to be a basic lack of respect has led to serious,
sometimes life-threatening incidents. An intentional high stick by
Boston defenseman Marty McSorley to the temple of Vancouver forward
Donald Brashear resulted in a league-record 23-game suspension.
What was supposed to have been a strong message apparently went
unheeded. A month later, New Jersey Scott Niedermayer nailed
Florida's Peter Worrell in the head with his stick after Worrell made
a now-banned throat-slashing gesture toward the Devils bench. Shortly
thereafter, Toronto defenseman Bryan Berard's career came to a
screeching halt when he was hit in the eye with an errant high stick,
resulting in an immediate debate about the merits of mandatory
Injuries to several stars were also worrisome. Dallas center Mike
Modano was lucky he wasn't paralyzed when he was run from behind by
Anaheim's Ruslan Salei early in the season. Jaromir Jagr, Keith
Tkachuk, Peter Forsberg, Joe Sakic, Paul Kariya, Pierre Turgeon,
Darien Hatcher, Al MacInnis, Joe Nieuwendyk, Dominik Hasek and Jere
Lehtinen all missed large portions of the season. In the end, Eric
Lindros and the Philadelphia Flyers were at odds over the club's
failure to diagnose what later was revealed to be a Grade II
concussion, which sidelined him 4-6 weeks. It was his fourth
concussion in two years, but the Flyers stripped him of his
captain's "C" after he publicly berated the team and its medical
"There have been incidents we all would have sooner not have had
happen," Bettman said, "but those incidents do not define the season
or the game.
"As I've said repeatedly, we cannot and we will not overlook McSorley
and Niedermayer. They were punished quickly, decisively with two of
the five harshest penalties in National Hockey League history. There
can be no clearer statement of our resolve. But these two incidents
do not define our game or the 700 other players who play night in and
"Bryan Berard's injury was tragic, period. I do not and will not
minimize what happened to him, fluke accident or not. I think the
record has got to be clear that we do not prohibit players from
wearing visors. It's a player's choice. And the players, Bryan Berard
included, as well as the Players Association, are not bashful at all
in telling anyone who will listen that it's their choice and they
won't have it any other way. But we will work together with the
Players Association this summer to see what can be done to better
protect our players, much like we did with the implementation of
certified helmets. It may take time, but it will be addressed."
Bettman said he's intent on seeing injuries reduced as well.
"While injuries are not at an epidemic level, I want them reduced.
Anything we can do to reduce them should be done, and we are engaged
in that effort."
The good news as we look ahead is that with two more teams --
Minnesota and Columbus -- joining the league to bring to 30 the
number of teams in the NHL, the playoff races have the potential to
be even more interesting and exciting. And the bad news? Well, in
many ways, it can get much worse.
But here again, we dwell on the negative after an otherwise wonderful
season. From St. Louis' wire-to-wire run to its first-ever
Presidents' Trophy, to the valiant playoff runs of Vancouver and
Montreal that fell just short on the final weekend of the season, to
the war courageous Philadelphia coach Roger Neilson is waging against
cancer, this was a year to remember in the NHL -- for more good
things than bad.
If the Stanley Cup playoffs come close to matching the excitement of
the regular season, we're in for something special.
The final ballot
One man's final ballot for the NHL's major awards, handed out for
performances during the regular season, players listed in order, 1-3:
Hart Trophy (the player adjudged to be most valuable to his team):
Mike Modano, Dallas; Chris Pronger, St. Louis; Olaf Kolzig,
Calder Trophy (top rookie): Scott Gomez, New Jersey; Brian Boucher,
Philadelphia; Brad Stuart, San Jose.
Norris Trophy (best defenseman): Chris Pronger, St. Louis; Nicklas
Lidstrom, Detroit; Eric Desjardins, Philadelphia.
Vezina Trophy (best goaltender): Roman Turek, St. Louis; Olaf Kolzig,
Washington; Martin Brodeur, New Jersey.
Selke Trophy (top defensive forward): Guy Carbonneau, Dallas; Mike
Ricci, San Jose; Steve Yzerman, Detroit.
Lady Byng (sportsmanship and gentlemanly conduct): Nicklas Lidstrom,
Detroit; Teemu Selanne, Anaheim; Adam Oates, Washington.
Adams Trophy (coach of the year): Joel Quenneville, St. Louis; Ken
Hitchcock, Dallas; Alain Vignault, Montreal.