All about hockey -- THE winter sport

Plugging away in the relative anonymity to which the game has become bitterly accustomed is another hockey season. It deserves much better, of course. But hockey people don't whine.

Doubtless you will be amazed to learn that the National Hockey League's regular season is just about half over, overwhelmed as it's been by the high-powered, media-driven, big buck NFL, NBA, BCS fire-wagons plus the epic contract wars of MLB's hot stove season.

I'll never accept the notion that the endless rehashing of the nitty-gritties of Cliff Lee's nine-figure deal with the Phillies is more interesting and exciting sporting fare than even a casual renewal of Bruins-Canadiens enmities. But it's an argument with my media lodge brothers that I lost a long time ago.

Hockey -- that would be the game in general and the NHL in particular -- has a wide range of problems in this country, including a lot of baggage to live down. But none of the game's burdens is bigger than the snippy attitude that an entire generation of sports media kiddies has brought to the subject mainly because they never played the game or -- more precisely -- never had the ability to do so.

Hence it's no surprise that halfway through the season you'll have a hard time finding many -- even among the addled sports buffs wasting away their lives adoring ESPN -- who are aware of the history Sid "the Kid" Crosby seems determined to make; let alone able to identify the leaders of the league's six divisions. Or is it 16 divisions that the NHL now features? That's another big part of the problem. In its chaotic disbursement the NHL is sort of everywhere but nowhere, having settled in too many towns where no one has ever heard of Rocket Richard. Not all of hockey's problems can be blamed on the media.

Actually, the NHL's general lot can be described as improved. The climb has been slow but steady in the five years since the catastrophic work-stoppage. Revenues have inched near $3 billion per annum, salaries are up roughly a third, marketing has soared, globalization looks more and more promising, the players have a new labor leader who is at least competent, and four television networks, including one owned by the League itself, are vigorously competing to serve as a major carrier. The TV issue, for better or worse, is critical. In the eyes of the sporting public, the game that doesn't have a major TV network deal that can regularly make its product available in every home is simply "bush league."

But much more important to hockey people is the league's improved solvency. If you believe the owners -- ever problematic -- only about four teams were safely in the black and half the league was brinking on bankruptcy when they opted to go to war with the players in 2004.

Now, according to Forbes Magazine which monitors such matters -- the owners still aren't talking -- at least 14 teams are making money with seven making profits that could be described as "handsome"(defined as at least $13 million a year). Interestingly, five of those teams are members of the illustrious "Original Six" that ruled the game with such privileged elan before mindless, runaway expansion gobbled up the entire bloody league.

Interestingly, the only "Original" not making the big bucks, according to Forbes, is your own beloved Bruins team. Now aren't you sorry you said all those nasty things about Jeremy Jacobs? On the other hand, the Bruins are one of only six teams having a value in excess of $300 million. The Canadiens, Maple leafs, Rangers, Red Wings and Flyers are the others. More reason to weep not, for Jeremy.

Of course, this means there are 16 teams still losing money with at least six being termed "shaky" having losses averaging more than $10 million a year. Gravest problem is the once illustrious Islanders who were all the rage back in the '80s before bad owners, weak direction, and a beat-up building brought them to the edge of ruin. It proves that not even in mighty Gotham can you have three franchises in any sport profiting within a 30 mile radius. The crash of the Islanders would mean humiliation for the league.

Phoenix, lately the NHL's biggest embarrassment, has turned the corner. Two others -- Atlanta and Tampa Bay -- may soon follow having significantly improved on the ice. Biggest puzzle is Buffalo, long a goldmine but now in trouble. The other Florida franchise would appear to be hopeless.

What is the answer? Contraction, obviously. Six teams, all from the Sunbelt, should go. Farewell Panthers (Miami-Dade), Predators (Nashville), Coyotes (Phoenix) and Yucks (Anaheim). You won't be missed for we hardly knew ye. A couple more should be relocated north of the border. It's ludicrous having a team in Columbus, Ohio but not in Quebec City. A nicely balanced 24-team league heavily tilted toward northern climes with a feel for the game's rhythms and a sense of its fabulous tradition would be a monumental improvement.

But the commissioner, a Manhattan lawyer and basketball man, will never stand for it. You can only wonder in amazement from whence Gary Bettman derives his enormous power? No one seems to know. But his grip on this league is absolute. Does he have keys to all the closets? Surely it has nothing to do with his knowledge or personality, both of which are negligible.

Before Bettman came aboard late in the last millennium -- sold to the gullible NHL owners by their chief competitor, NBA Czar David Stern -- there was some talk about Harry Sinden as a possible candidate. There were rumors, or at least murmurs. It didn't go anywhere because Harry never encouraged it and down to this day I have no idea whether he wanted any part of it. Young enough at the time and enormously influential in the highest councils of the game for 30 years, Harry had the brains and the strength to be a superb commissioner. No man ever knew the game better, or loved it more.

You talk of "roads not taken." How different the NHL would look today had Harry Sinden, by some miracle of common sense, been made Commissioner in the late '90s instead of the fellow who thinks the road to prosperity for the game of ice hockey runs through Charlotte, North Carolina, down along the Florida Keys, and onward to Laguna Beach.

Anyway, the season bears on and nearing the halfway point we find our Bruins in their familiar pose; hard at work raising expectations that even the kids themselves probably sense are unrealistic. As this is written, they are in first place which is no big deal in a league in which 20 of the 30 teams are roughly equal. The fancy word for this odd condition is "parity." But sometimes it is hard to tell the difference between parity and mediocrity.

Under Peter Chiarelli, a Harvard boy and Harry's rather timid successor, we have yet another Bruins team that answers the bell (most of the time), works hard, can be chippy (when reminded of its heritage), honors the colors and likes the town, has little luck, makes the playoffs, and gets knocked out no later than the second round. There is no shame in this. If it's soon to be 39 years since last The Cup was waltzed hereabouts, it could be worse. In Toronto, the game's epicenter, it will soon be 44 years. And counting!

Once again, the Bruins will give their extraordinary legion of dutiful followers their money's worth. But it's a team that lacks a dominant offensive-defenseman that can quarterback the attack, and its short at least two snipers up front. A couple of late injuries, inevitable in this hard game, will be ruinous, as was the case last season. The goalie is sufficiently gallant but he'll find again that the playoffs and regular season are very different beasts. The coach is honest and willing but rather ordinary, just like his team.

In short, it's a team just like last year's and the one the year before, etc. With the Bruins, the more things change, the more they remain the same.