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Inside The NHL

End of the Line?
Captain Keith Tkachuk's uncertain status is troubling the Coyotes

When the Winnipeg Jets morphed into the Phoenix Coyotes before
the 1996-97 season, they appointed 6'2", 220-pound left wing
Keith Tkachuk as their captain. He has worn the C ever since and
the neophyte puck fans in Phoenix have seen him average 43 goals
per year and show a nasty streak that has made him one of the
three most fearsome power forwards in the game. Tkachuk has come
to define the Coyotes, and the Coyotes have come to define him,
which is why he's disturbed that his time in Phoenix may soon
come to an end. "Getting traded is always in the back of my mind
these days," says Tkachuk, 27, who has spent his eight-year NHL
career with the franchise.

Just before New Year's the Coyotes agreed to send Tkachuk to the
Hurricanes for center Keith Primeau and other players. At the
last moment, however, Carolina owner Peter Karmanos balked,
saying he couldn't afford the $8.3 million that Tkachuk is
scheduled to earn next year. So Tkachuk stayed put, and a
palpable uneasiness descended upon the Phoenix dressing room.
"Yes, that feeling's there," says Jeremy Roenick, the center on
Tkachuk's line. "It's there for Keith, and it's there for me and
for all of us."

The groundwork for these troubled times was laid last season when
Tkachuk held out in the preseason until the Coyotes added time
and money to the five-year, $17.2 million contract he'd signed in
1995. He's making $4.3 million this season, and the fact that his
salary nearly doubles next year has unnerved Phoenix management,
which often adopts hardline stances in negotiations with its
players. (For example, No. 1 goaltender Nikolai Khabibulin, a
restricted free agent, has sat out all season in a contract
dispute.) Coyotes owner Richard Burke and general manager Bobby
Smith, who caved to Tkachuk's demands, now consider that decision
to have been a mistake.

While Tkachuk says, "I want to play in Phoenix for the rest of my
career," of late Coyotes fans have transferred their affection to
garrulous, smooth-skating Roenick, who heroically played a game
with a broken jaw last postseason and who through Sunday was
fifth in the NHL in scoring, with 21 goals and 28 assists in 36
games. When the Coyotes and the Hurricanes were in trade
discussions last month, one Phoenix newspaper reported that
Tkachuk might be dealt, while another reported that Roenick was
the player who might go. Fans came to the Coyotes' home game on
Dec. 28 bearing signs of support for Roenick; there were no such
signs visible for Tkachuk.

Despite those distractions, as well as injuries to his left knee,
neck and back, Tkachuk had 16 goals and 16 assists in 34 games.
He can carry a team as few players can, and Roenick says
Tkachuk's ability to disrupt a defense "makes me a better
player." In the third period of a 4-3 loss to the Devils last
Saturday, Tkachuk ripped a cannonlike shot off the end boards
that caromed to Roenick, who flicked the puck past New Jersey
goalie Martin Brodeur to knot the game at 3. The tie, though, was
fleeting, just as the Tkachuk-Roenick alliance may prove to be.

General Managers' Poll
Ticket Prices Are Too High

The NHL spent the 1990s expanding to new reaches of the U.S., but
at the same time the league may have been distancing itself from
the everyday fan. According to Team Marketing Report, since
1995-96 the average cost of a game ticket has risen 32%, to
$45.70. Meanwhile, attendance this season has fallen for 14 of
the 27, including clubs in big markets such as Anaheim, Chicago,
New Jersey and New York (Islanders).

With that in mind, SI asked NHL general managers, Are teams
losing fans because ticket prices are too high? Twenty-four of
the NHL's 28 general managers, all of whom were offered
anonymity, responded, with 15 saying yes, four saying no and five
giving noncommittal responses such as "We're getting to that
point" and "Prices are a concern."

Several general managers blamed player salaries, which have shot
up 380% from the start of the decade through last season, for the
increase in ticket prices. "Something has to give," says one
Eastern Conference general manager. "Either salaries have to
plateau or ticket prices will keep going up." Players'
association head Bob Goodenow didn't return phone calls seeking
comment on this matter.

Commissioner Gary Bettman says the NHL is "keeping an eye on the
cost of tickets" and adds that "the average price is misleading
because most teams provide an inexpensive option." While many
clubs sell $10 to $20 seats that enable some less affluent fans
to attend games, those fans typically get lousy views of the ice.
"We've priced fans out of the lower bowl," observes one general
manager. Adds another, "Somehow we've got to be fairer than we
are to the normal person who has to make a living and wants to be
a hockey fan."

The Red Line
Can't Live Without It

Play at the World Junior Championships in Sweden earlier this
month may have put the kibosh on one of the more drastic ideas
for changing the NHL game. As the league has tinkered with the
rules in recent years to boost scoring, some observers have
suggested that it imitate the NCAA and eliminate the red line.
Because a pass that crosses the center line and either blue line
usually results in an offsides call, the theory goes that
abolishing the red line would enable the NHL's swift skaters to
take advantage of long passes and generate more scoring chances.

For the second straight year the World Juniors was played without
the red line, and once again the result was plodding, defensive
hockey. Defenders were so wary of surrendering a bomb that they
routinely retreated to their own zone instead of forechecking.
Fans whistled derisively each time the defense fell back, and
near the end of the tournament Tommy Tomth, the head of the
Swedish junior program, called hockey without the center line "a
disgrace." All of which should mean that, no matter how badly the
NHL wants to increase scoring, the red line is here to stay.

COLOR PHOTO: LOU CAPOZZOLA The Hurricanes killed a possible deal for Tkachuk because of his $8.3 million salary next season.




At 31 he's one of the longest-tenured New York players (nine
seasons), and with two Stanley Cup rings he's a respected leader
who has helped nurture the Rangers' young talent. His 22 points
through Sunday gave him 523 in 871 NHL games.



At 34 he was reacquired by New Jersey from the Avalanche in
November, after an earlier five-season stint with the Devils.
He's a three-time Cup winner notorious for his chippiness, and
his 25 points this season gave him 685 in 961 games.

The Verdict: Graves is a more willing checker and consummate
team man, but Lemieux's playoff credentials--he led the NHL in
playoff goal-scoring twice--makes him our choice.