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Original Issue

Drop Those Pucks!

As the NHL starts its season at last, expect tight races, more goals and a rash of injuries

Now that NHL players and owners have signed a new collective bargaining agreement, hatched after 103 days of lockout-induced incubation, and commissioner Gary Bettman and players' union chief Bob Goodenow have auditioned so convincingly for Dumb and Dumber: How Not to Take Advantage of the New York Rangers' First Stanley Cup in 54 Years, what inquiring hockey minds want to know is: Can this 48-game ugly duckling of a season grow into something that flies? Will the Stanley Cup finals really go on till July, outlasting spring, the NBA playoffs and the opening statements of the O.J. Simpson trial? Can anyone in Dallas, Miami or Tampa remember what icing is? For better and for worse, here's what fans can expect of the truncated 1995 season.

•No midseason doldrums. The NHL this year could prove to be a throwback to the pre-'67 six-team league, an era when nightly intensity was a given and there were no meaningless regular-season games. Ask any coach the most difficult stretch in an 84-game schedule, and he'll tell you January, the month of the mid-season blahs, when the adrenaline rush of the new season is a memory and the playoffs are still a speck on the horizon. Weary of travel, mentally drained from the seemingly endless schedule, the players usually are dragging just as winter hits its stride. Not in '95. The gun goes off this Friday, after six days of workouts, and a fast start might guarantee a team a postseason slot. A two-week slump at any time could kill a team's chances for the playoffs. The compressed schedule—the 48 games will be played in just 15 weeks, an average of 3.2 games per week per team—means that, for a change, the regular season will carry nearly as much passion as the playoffs.

•Tighter races. The last time the NHL played a 48-game season, in 1941-42, only 25 points separated the best team (the Rangers, then as now) from the worst (the New York Americans). Last season 75 points separated top from bottom. That gap will be narrowed. "The shorter the season, the more beneficial for the weaker clubs," says Boston Bruin general manager Harry Sinden. "Given time, the cream will rise to the top, but this year there may not be time. It's like a two-out-of-three playoff series versus a best-of-seven. Almost anyone can win a two-out-of-three. I'd lean toward some nonfavorites making the playoffs."

•Early-season surprises. "The teams that will have the advantage early will be the ones with the greater number of players in good condition," says Toronto Maple Leaf general manager Cliff Fletcher. "That, more than talent, will determine how they'll get out of the gate. You may have some good teams that don't make the playoffs this year, particularly if they get some injuries."

Teams with new coaches, including both Stanley Cup finalists, the Rangers and the Vancouver Canucks, are at a special disadvantage. New systems and new coaching styles take time for players to adjust to. New York promoted Colin Campbell to fill the shoes of Mike Keenan, who in July bolted to the St. Louis Blues to be their coach and general manager. And Pat Quinn, the coach and general manager of the Canucks last year, dropped his coaching duties and will be replaced behind the bench by Rick Ley. Both Campbell and Ley will be under the gun. In St. Louis, meanwhile, look for Keenan's Blues to be singing them the first month of the season. This is Keenan's fourth head-coaching job, and the last two times he has moved, his new team has started slowly as the players tried to adapt to his exacting and unorthodox ways. This year the time consumed by a similar adjustment could cost the Blues a playoff spot.

•More goals, especially in the first month. In hockey, offense happens, defense is coached. Last season the goalies dominated the scorers as the average goals per game fell to its lowest total in 20 years. The late start will probably reverse that trend, at least temporarily. Most NHL players have been skating regularly during the lockout, and while there has been little body contact or defensive work, they've spent a lot of time shooting the puck. The snipers, rested and healthy, should start out in midseason form. Team defense, by contrast, is predicated on three things: goaltending, coaching and conditioning. It's been more than three months since most NHL goalies have seen the kinds of shots they'll face once the season begins, and many are bound to show signs of rust. And nearly a week of practice will not be long enough to get players in condition to play the kind of disciplined defense demanded in the NHL. Look for some shoot-outs.

•An increased European influence. The hardest adjustment European players have to make when they play in the NHL is to the lengthy 84-game schedule. This year, no problemo. Plus, many Europeans returned home during the lockout, so the homesickness that can be so mentally draining should be abated. The Rangers, with such foreign stars as Alexei Kovalev, Petr Nedved and Sergei Zubov, may be a major beneficiary.

•Big playoff performances by some familiar faces. "I wonder if a guy like [34-year-old Bruin defenseman] Raymond Bourque will be in midseason form at the end of the year," ponders Sinden. "The short season could really have a positive effect on some of the older star players, who get so many minutes of ice time in an 84-game schedule that they're drained when the playoffs come around. It's not just the physical fatigue. It's the mental fatigue of putting on their equipment 8,000 times." Fletcher agrees: "The shortened season will be beneficial to some players in the twilight of their careers."

Exhibit A is Wayne Gretzky, who missed 39 games because of injuries in 1992-93 and thus had unexpected jump in his legs once the playoffs rolled around. Gretzky, then 32, led all postseason scorers while taking the Los Angeles Kings to the Stanley Cup finals. Other older guys who should benefit: Mark Messier of the Rangers, Doug Gilmour of the Maple Leafs, Steve Yzerman and Paul Coffey of the Detroit Red Wings and Pat LaFontaine of the Buffalo Sabres.

•An increase in injuries. Depth will be critical to a team's success. Early on we are likely to see a plethora of groin and hamstring pulls as players try to play themselves into condition. Later, players will begin to be worn down by bumps, bruises and muscle strains from the volume of games played over such a short period of time. There won't be time for a minor aggravation to heal. In mid-February the Rangers will play five games in seven nights. The New Jersey Devils will play 10 games in 19 days in March. The season may have been shortened, but the dearth of off days could have general managers reaching out to their farm teams as never before, out of necessity rather than choice.

•For the fifth year in a row, the Stanley Cup champion will probably come from the Eastern Conference. Travel will see to it, if talent doesn't. There'll be no inter-conference play until the Stanley Cup finals—no Toronto versus Montreal Canadien games, no Gretzky-led Kings versus Messier-led Rangers, no Eastern Conference team even playing out of its own time zone until one of them finds itself competing for the league championship. For the next five months the Devils, the Rangers and the New York Islanders will never have to take a plane ride of more than two hours' duration, except for the two times each team flies south to play the Florida Panthers and the Tampa Bay Lightning.

Meanwhile, poor Detroit and Toronto, two of the best teams in the Western Conference, will expire, slowly and painfully, of terminal jet lag. The only times they'll play a road game that's in their time zone is when they play each other. Toronto's closest NHL neighbor, Buffalo, which is less than 100 miles away, but in the Eastern Conference, is not even on its schedule. "The travel for us is not good compared to the travel for clubs in the Eastern Conference," says Fletcher, trying to put the best face on a bad situation. "But there are only 24 road games, and the travel affects all teams in our conference equally. We won't be playing the other conference till the finals."

There is a benefit for the fans: The two teams that qualify for the Stanley Cup finals won't have faced each other all year, which may create heightened interest. On the other hand by the time the finals are played, it'll be summer. All the fans may have gone fishing by then.

The question of public interest in the wake of the lockout remains to be answered. There's little doubt that hockey fans in traditional NHL cities—Boston, Montreal, New York, etc.—will quickly forgive and forget, and that the arenas in those towns will be filled. But what about the new fans in the Sun Belt, so vital to the future of the league, where the sport was just beginning to take root? How soon will they return?

Another question: By postponing the start of the postseason a month, the NHL will now go head-to-head against the NBA playoffs. Will the NHL's television ratings, already minuscule, suffer a setback despite a new national TV deal that will bring some of the league's playoff games to Fox? That seems likely, further setting back the league's efforts to depict hockey as an up-and-coming sport.

Finally, what are the chances that this collective bargaining agreement, so painfully and grudgingly extracted in an 11th-hour deal that averted cancellation of the season, will lead to lasting labor peace? As it tries to build its fan base, the NHL can ill afford any further acrimonious work stoppages, but both sides have the right to reopen the six-year agreement after the 1997-98 season, and judging from Bettman's and Goodenow's expressions when the settlement was announced on Jan. 11, they will fight for the honor to do so.

Dumb, Dumber, Dumbest. It could be the official NHL film.



Icing (clockwise from left): Rangers resume practice; Bruin fans line up; Gilmour gets a once-over from Leaf coach Pat Burns; a Ranger fan ponders this year's Cup prospects.



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Its Cup defense having been delayed, New York returned to work hoping for another banner year.