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Inside The NHL


From the moment Pat Burns took over as Bruins coach last spring
he believed in center Jason Allison. That was all Allison needed.

Canada's top junior player in 1993-94, Allison had struggled
with his self-esteem while failing to meet expectations during
parts of four seasons with the Capitals, who drafted him 17th in
'93. But after being traded to Boston in a six-player deal in
March 1997, Allison, 22, emerged during the recently concluded
regular season as a game-breaker. After putting up just seven
goals and 22 assists in 86 career games with Washington, he had
83 points in '97-98 to rank ninth in the league.

Allison, a 6'3", 205-pounder, is most dangerous around the net,
and he was the Bruins' top offensive threat in their
best-of-seven first-round series against the Capitals, which
Washington led 2-1 at week's end. In Boston's 4-3
double-overtime victory in Game 2, Allison had three points,
including an assist on the game-winning goal. "When we got him,
he had a huge upside," says Boston general manager Harry Sinden.
"At some point that usually comes through."

Allison, who isn't a graceful skater but is difficult to knock
off the puck, might never have developed into a star in
Washington. He was stung when the Capitals sent him to a skating
school in 1996, and he never found his stride under coach Jim
Schoenfeld. Even when Allison got into the lineup--he was
scratched frequently and often shuttled between Washington and
the Caps' affiliate in Portland, Maine--Schoenfeld afforded him
little ice time and only at insignificant moments. Allison grew
disconsolate, played lethargically and by last season was
convinced his skills had atrophied.

Burns, though, saw potential in Allison. From the beginning of
this season he assigned him to center a scoring line and also
used him to kill penalties and to help Boston protect a lead
late in games. In December, Burns called Allison into his
office, closed the door and told him how good a player he could
be. After Allison had a hat trick on Jan. 8, Burns said, "This
guy can make a real impact in this league." Minutes later
Allison fairly blushed when told of Burns's praise.

These days the Capitals have a new coach (Ron Wilson) and play
in a new arena (the MCI Center), so Allison said the current
series doesn't inspire musings on his past. He prefers to talk
about the Bruins and explain why he can stand in the dressing
room during his first NHL postseason and vow that he will keep
producing. "They have confidence in me here," says Allison.
"That gives me confidence in myself."

Franchises in Trouble

Commissioner Gary Bettman's address last month to a group of
powerful Canadian business leaders on the troubled state of
their country's six NHL franchises was an embarrassment. Bettman
stood at a lectern in the plush Royal York hotel in Toronto with
a mammoth Canadian flag behind him and implied that Canada's
government was responsible for the financial hardships of those
clubs. The 25-minute speech was a rehearsal for a talk Bettman
was to deliver on Tuesday to a parliamentary subcommittee that
is reviewing hockey at all levels in Canada.

Bettman was rightfully concerned that three of the Canadian
teams--the Flames, the Oilers and the Senators--are struggling,
and his vow that he will "not allow Canada's great gift to the
world to be diminished in its home country" was admirable. But
it's hard to take him seriously. He downplayed both the sharp
increase in NHL salaries (up 263% since 1991) and the sharp
decline in the Canadian dollar (at week's end it was worth 70
cents U.S.) as significant factors in the teams' troubles.
Instead, Bettman cited "pressing issues of building control
[and] taxation" as the NHL's main concerns.

He lectured the businessmen about the huge tax breaks and
subsidized arenas U.S. municipalities often afford hockey
franchises, while adding that Canada's governments do no such
thing. The Senators, he pointed out, pay $3 million annually in
municipal taxes--more than the 20 U.S. teams combined.

That appeal for government help was presumptuous and disturbing
for Canadians because Bettman, a U.S. citizen, is essentially
telling their country how to run its affairs. Canada taxes all
residents at a much higher rate than America does and needs the
revenue for such national hallmarks as socialized medicine and
its well-supported public-education system. "The U.S. shouldn't
be subsidizing those puck-flipping jocks," says University of
Toronto professor emeritus John Crispo, an expert on political
economy. "Thank god our municipalities aren't doing that to the
same extent."

The fate of the three teams is important to the NHL because
Canadian markets are the only ones where hockey is the top game
in town and because Canada still produces 61% of the NHL's
players. In the wake of the Nordiques' move from Quebec to
Colorado in 1995 and the Jets' defection from Winnipeg to
Phoenix in '96, the league adopted an assistance plan to aid
struggling Canadian franchises. While the Flames, Oilers and
Senators each received $2.5 million from that pool this season,
that's a small sum for franchises that could lose double that
amount or more in each of the next several seasons.

The best solution would be for the NHL to institute some form of
revenue sharing among its teams, but the players' union, headed
by Detroit-born Bob Goodenow, has expressed no interest in
making sacrifices to aid Canada's teams. Bettman either has to
take on Goodenow or divert more of the NHL's wealth to its
neediest cases.

COLOR PHOTO: DAMIAN STROHMEYER GOOD MOVE The trade to the Bruins gave Allison room to grow. [Jason Allison in game]



Glenn Anderson, Charlie Huddy and Jari Kurri each scored two
goals in Edmonton's 11-2 thrashing of Chicago in Game 1 of the
Campbell Conference finals. Only three of the Oilers' 18 skaters
failed to score a point as Edmonton, which would win its second
straight Stanley Cup 26 days later, equaled NHL postseason
records (since broken) for goals in a game and consecutive
victories (11). Said Hawks goaltender Murray Bannerman, "It was
over when they played the national anthems."