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Bettman's vision seen everywhere except on TV

Gary Bettman's vision all along has been to make the NHL a global sport, so it must have been humbling last week knowing Paris Hilton's release from a three-day stretch in the clink stole the show from the Anaheim Ducks. If nothing else, it was a sad reminder of where hockey sits on a national scale.

That's if it's on the national scale, of course.

The commissioner has plenty of work ahead in legitimizing a league that for years was perceived as irrelevant. Hockey's television ratings, laughable at their height, were down 20 percent in the United States and 18 percent in Canada from last year for the Stanley Cup between the Ducks and the Ottawa Senators.

Bettman spent years trying to sell people on the strength of the league when anybody paying attention knew otherwise. But the opposite is true in this case. The NHL isn't nearly as weak as TV ratings would suggest. The salary cap is expected to increase again next season, a sign the league has a strong revenue stream.

Take a closer look, and you'll see Bettman's vision from the mid-1990s slowly taking form. The last three Cup winners were the Lightning, Hurricanes and Ducks. All three play in non-traditional hockey markets. Their success helped generate interest among fans who previously didn't care about the game.

It is marginal improvement to be sure. Television ratings are troubling, but that's always been the case. Hockey in January is a tough sell. Hockey in June is nearly impossible. The Ducks didn't exactly corner Southern California, but they effectively carved into a busy sports market with two appearances in the finals since 2003.

The same thing happened in Tampa and Raleigh. And once hockey-loving kids grow into ticket-buying adults over the next decade, the fan base will be stronger in several struggling markets in the United States. The trick will be keeping the game exciting and giving them a product worth watching.

Hockey overseas is stronger than ever because so many Europeans have come across the pond to play in the NHL. Television numbers are down in North America, but there are more hockey fans around the world now than when Wayne Gretzky was leading the Edmonton Oilers in hockey's golden era.

And that's where Bettman has, in fact, succeeded.

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Cup coming to Buffalo

It was great to hear Ducks veteran Todd Marchant go out of his way to mention how he planned to bring the Stanley Cup to his hometown.

Marchant made his NHL debut with the Rangers during the 1993-94 season, the year the Blueshirts won the Cup. He was shipped to Edmonton at the trade deadline but never came close to winning it all in nine full seasons with the Oilers. The Ducks plucked him off waivers from Columbus.

"It's an unbelievable feeling," Marchant said. "A lot of years, a lot of hard work, it's hard to describe. . . . It'll take a few days to sink in. I'm taking it to Buffalo."

The Williamsville native did everything for the Ducks but drive the Zamboni. Much of his work was overlooked as he fought through injuries. It was no surprise last week to hear former Sabres winger and role player Brad May gushing over his teammate.

"Todd Marchant is the consummate utility player," May said. "He kills penalties. He's skilled enough to play on the power play. He's physical. He's a fast skater. He's been a contributor to every team he's ever played on. I'm glad he's on my team."

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Yearning to be Yashin

The next sentence should come as a surprise: I want to be Alexei Yashin, if only for a day. That day would be Wednesday, when Yashin was paid $17.5 million in exchange for him not working for the New York Islanders.
It was a bargain for the Islanders, on the hook for about $26 million so Yashin could not work while still on the roster. Good luck finding a player in the history of the league whose level of talent matched his indifference.

Just watch, somebody will sign him now that he's a free agent. Yashin will come cheap, too, given the demand for dogs. Don't be surprised if he lands with Florida under GM and coach Jacques Martin, who coddled Yashin for years in Ottawa.

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Five WNYers auditioning

Team USA could wind up taking five Western New York players to the 2008 World Junior Championships in the Czech Republic. It will largely depend on how well they play at the August national evaluation camp in Lake Placid.

South Buffalo winger Patrick Kane, likely the No. 1 pick overall in the NHL draft in two weeks after his stock soared during the WJC last year, leads the list. Kane will be selected for the team but could miss the tournament. His availability will depend on if, or how well, he's playing in the NHL.

Sanborn goalie Thomas McCollum, a sleeper who emerged last season for Guelph and was one of the Ontario Hockey League's best netminders, also was invited. He played for the U.S. team that finished second in the world in the under-18 division last season.

The others are South Buffalo defenseman Mike Ratchuk, Tonawanda defenseman Kevin Quick and Rochester defenseman Kevin Montgomery. Ratchuk, a former second-round pick of the Philadelphia Flyers, helped Michigan State to a national title last year. Montgomery left Ohio State last season and joined Kane on the London Knights. Quick was drafted in the third round by Tampa Bay in 2006.

One player surprisingly overlooked was Williamsville goalie Brett Bennett, who played for Boston University and has been one of the best goalies in his age group for years. Phoenix made him a fifth-round pick in 2006.

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It's time to Vanek

Talk during the finals had a few teams likely throwing an offer sheet to Sabres winger Thomas Vanek, a restricted free agent who this season emerged as a 40-goal scorer and one of the top young players in the game.

Teams in the Northeast Division should especially recognize the benefit of trying to sign him. If the Sabres match the offer and retain him, it would force them to spend more than they intended and could weaken the roster. If the Sabres don't match it, the other team gets a terrific player.

Some might call that dirty pool. Others would suggest that it's just business.

e-mail: bgleason@buffnews.com

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