NHL update

Two months ago the puck-chasing world -- or at least such of it still willing to be defined by the National Hockey League -- was reeling from its desperately close encounter with total disaster while worrying if a 48-game schedule jammed into little more than three months of merry mayhem could be remotely justified as an actual ''season,'' let alone considered valid.

We are reaching the halfway point of that rash compromise necessitated by the dumbest labor dispute in the history of sport. There are scholars who might wisely point out that six weeks does not provide much of a sample.

But this is the NHL we're talking about, not some rational enterprise. For what it's worth, the early returns are little short of spectacular. Consider the most basic data:

Overall attendance is up with the league playing to a higher percentage of full capacity in its stadia than ever. TV ratings -- both local and national -- are said to be climbing, dramatically in key markets. As are commercial-time buys, which had been freely predicted to implode. All of which obviously tells you overall NHL revenues are not only higher but soaring at what's termed, ''a record-setting pace.''

If measuring the enthusiasm of the fans is trickier it's reasonable to assume that if they are spending freely they can't be too embittered. Most surprisingly, injuries have not sharply increased as was expected in a brutally compressed schedule, although stray, hard-hit teams like the Rangers might argue that.

Maybe it's early. But the bottom line is blooming and that backlash in the ranks of paying patrons so widely predicted during the dreary days of the lock-out has not materialized, and clearly won't. As for the quality of play, it could use a goose. Scoring is down with conservative defensive strategies creeping back into vogue -- certainly an artistic concern -- but gripes are so far minimal. The players have responded splendidly. No moaning from them about the ratcheted intensity deriving from that brutally compressed schedule. No surprise there. Hockey players are different. They don't complain about having to play.

So what accounts for this remarkable turn of affairs? Is the fan-base wider than realized? Has the NHL got deeper roots than the hot-shot marketers and media moguls have wanted us to believe? NBC is jacking up its commitment. There's even talk of lordly ESPN wanting back-in on hockey action and stirrings about more expansion whereas a year ago the talk was entirely of ''contraction.'' The Pooh-Bahs of the Olympics are flat-out begging the NHL to sign on for next year's Winter Games in Russia.

Considered a battered collection of addled nitwits just two months ago, the NHL is suddenly being taken mighty seriously in some pretty high places. If it's early yet, it's still fairly amazing!

Maybe we under-estimate not only the entertainment and sentimental value of Sport but its sociological connection as a primary bulwark of the entire culture. By every measure the NHL labor dispute was such perfect folly it should have resulted in the catastrophe some predicted. No less was deserved. But it didn't happen. We ought not be flabbergasted.

The popular explanation credits the intense devotions of legendarily forgiving hockey fans who while smaller in numbers bow to no other sports cult-following in their loyalties and passions. But that hardly casts them as suckers, compared to the others.

Recall that pro football and basketball recently went through equally aggravating labor gyrations without damage. Over a whole generation, Major League Baseball insulted us again and again with walk-outs and lock-outs, increasingly ugly, and every time they came back the industry took off on another quantum leap in ratings and revenues, profits and popularity. It may be that the business brawls of the super-jocks and their moguls have become an accepted sideshow, almost an amusing diversion in which we can also pick sides and vent vehemently. The Great Unwashed have always delighted in seeing the Idle Rich make fools of themselves.

Is it a genuine era of good feeling that's now emerging in hockey -- much as has prevailed lately in baseball -- or just a brief truce induced mainly by sheer exhaustion? No professional league has had lousier labor relations over the long haul nor have any other professional athletes had more legitimate gripes. At last, however, there does seem a deep recognition on both sides that this nonsense must end.

A very good sign was the swift dispatch with which the players association (NHLPA) approved with little fuss the latest re-alignment plan put forth by the league. The NHL sprawls diametrically from the farthest reaches of the entire continent. Travel burdens on the players are terrible with travel costs for the owners ridiculous. Reform is crucial but the sides have long dithered and the players weren't expected to go along without more hassling. But they did.

Of course it's a reasonably logical plan, particularly for the Bruins who will grace the eight-team Northeast Division of the Eastern Conference with three of their most beloved old pals from the ''Original Six''; the Canadiens, Maple Leafs, and Red Wings, while Buffalo, Ottawa, Florida, and Tampa round out the card. In that intra-conference foes get to meet the most, it's a great deal for Boston. Overall, the new league lay-out makes sense although the fact that Detroit and two Florida teams end up in ''the Northeast Division'' suggests the NHL is still struggling with geography.

Anyway, with 30 teams spread around four divisions there remains imbalance. But it's likely to be soon corrected with the addition of two new teams to go along with the re-locating of maybe two now existing. Expansion would have been unthinkable even a year ago, with three teams veering on bankruptcy and little consensus on anything. Now it looks probable, likely in just two years.

The drift, happily, is away from the Sunbelt with at least two new franchises near certain to land in Canada -- Quebec City and somewhere in Ontario -- along with another in the Pacific Northwest, probably Seattle. The good burghers of three of these proposed locations are already constructing spanking new arenas. That's a lot of new hockey jobs about to be created. Small wonder the NHLPA is pleased to be more co-operative.

Consider a 32-team league with four geographically aligned divisions featuring natural rivalries and balanced schedules and a logical playoff format; a solidly grounded league that looks less to lands where there is no ice and more to locales where the game is deeply entrenched in the culture. It's a pleasing prospect and it's tenable.

For almost a half century -- dating back to its first great modern expansion in 1967 when over-night it doubled itself -- the NHL has been the captive of its own chaotic growth. It has not so much been expanding as desperately lurching, hither and yon, trying along the way in its amiable mis-direction to please everyone while failing to be true to itself.

Opportunity beckons. You can imagine a time coming when the Stanley Cup might be fought over by the champion of North America and the champion of Old Europe in an annual sporting festival held in one of the Crown Capitals that dwarfs even the Olympics in terms of excitement and acclaim. No game has greater potential than hockey.

You might feel more confident about how all this will turn out if there were more confidence in the leadership. But for all his faults which we've taken great pains to enumerate in this space over the years Czar Gary Bettman is NOT stupid. He may just even see an opening in this bold new mood through which he might find the path to his own redemption in this grand old game. Or at least it's pretty to think so, don't you think?

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