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DESPITE SPIN, BETTMAN KNOWS SCORE

Commissioner Gary Bettman gave his annual State of the NHL speech at the Stanley Cup finals this week. As you probably know, the league is in phenomenal shape, the dwindling television ratings are misleading, fans are tickled to death with the product, scoring does not equate to entertainment and the popcorn is always fresh.

As for all the criticisms lobbed the NHL's way, people, you misunderstand. Those aren't gripes so much as outpourings of affection resulting from the unique intimacy of the fan-league relationship.

"I think people tend to be very passionate about this game, maybe more so than some of the others," Bettman said. "Sometimes you're more critical of things you love the most."

If Bettman were a bricklayer there'd be a worldwide mortar shortage because the guy can lay it on. He's a master at spin, expert at employing selective facts to unleash his offensive. For instance, he conveniently bypassed the sagging cumulative U.S. television ratings and, instead, pointed out that Game Seven of the Vancouver-Minnesota series drew a 40 share in the Twin Cities, peaking at 67.

"Those numbers stand not only against any other sport, but against anything on television," submitted The Commish.

Who would have thought that fans in the hockey hotbed of Minnesota would click on their sets in large numbers to watch the deciding game of a conference semifinal that would determine the fate of an expansion franchise making its first postseason appearance? If that doesn't speak to the overall health of the game, what does?

But I like Bettman. I like him because he went to the wall to keep the Sabres in Buffalo. I find his mastery of manipulation thoroughly entertaining. And I like him because I think that, once you weed through all the bluster, he's letting us know, in his own subtle way, that he shares popular concerns over where the game has gone and where it may be headed.

Do fans want more scoring?

"Not necessarily, no," he said. "They want exciting games. They want close games, but they're not just looking for more goals for the sake of more goals. . . . I'm not sure who on the politically correct police ever said that the number of goals you score translates into how exciting your game is."

How about eliminating the red line to open play?

"What we saw in Salt Lake City (in the Olympics) was the team with the puck was, more often than not, skating four out of five in the offensive zone and leaving one player back to defend against the long pass," he said. "In addition, I think what you see when you allow the two-line pass is that the defensemen on the point tend to give up the point a little bit quicker than they do when we play the game now. I think it will result in less sustained pressure in the offensive zone."

Goaltending equipment. Too big?

"Actually, that's something we have been looking at and have been regulating . . . and whether or not we need to go further is a difficult issue," he said.

And just when it seemed Bettman was in staunch denial, that everything in his eyes is right with the NHL, a question was asked about expanding the net size.

"We have had that discussion," Bettman said. "I said to Colin (Campbell, executive vice president of hockey operations), and we should probably talk about it over the summer, 'Let the goaltenders wear whatever they want. Just make the nets bigger and that will take care of any issues that anybody has about whether or not the equipment is too big or small.' "

So ask yourself, if scoring's overrated, why is The Commish initiating discussions on how to increase it? The answer, of course, is that scoring is a selling point that outranks the neutral-zone trap. The NFL tinkered with its rules to make the pass a formidable weapon. Baseball lowered the pitching mound and built cozy ballparks to push up its run count. We are not a culture seduced by defense. So it's a relief to hear Bettman, even in small increments, talking more like the head of the NHL and less like the head of FIFA.
e-mail: bdicesare@buffnews.com

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