EAST RUTHERFORD, N.J. (CP) - In the face of a Stanley Cup final featuring two defensive-minded hockey teams, NHL commissioner Gary Bettman insisted Tuesday that the game has improved from last year.
Armed with a bevy of statistics and facing a critical mass of hockey writers, a well-prepared and well-spoken Bettman denied the NHL's brand of hockey was going to hell during his annual state of the league address.
"The fact of the matter is the flow of the game is better than it was last year," Bettman said before Game 1 of the final between Anaheim and New Jersey. "The game is better than it was last year, scoring is up from last year. And we continue to strive to make it better."
When a Toronto columnist pointed out that players such as Igor Larionov of Detorit and John Madden of New Jersey have bemoaned the state of the game, Bettman responded strongly.
"I don't think there's something fundamentally wrong," said Bettman. "I think if you have an axe to grind on the game and you want to selectively quote people you can draw any conclusion you want. If your goal is to be controversial, difficult and critical, you can reach any conclusion you want. But, the fact remains that 20 million people come to see this game. People watch it on television in record numbers..."
And so what if the final four teams in the playoffs this year all played defensive and low-scoring hockey.
"There's no magic about 8-1 games," Bettman said. "The fact that 73 per cent of the time games are played within one or two goals or tied tells you that there's a level of excitement and commitment. And I'm not sure who on the politically correct police ever said that the number of goals you score translate into how exciting the game is. I don't buy into that."
The NHL's No. 1 priority this season was to try and eliminate obstruction in the neutral zone and allow forecheckers without the puck to skate freely. After a parade to the penalty box in the first half of the season, most NHL observers agree that obstruction crept back into the game, especially in the playoffs.
League executive Colin Campbell, the architect of the crackdown announced last September, surprisingly admitted during Bettman's news conference that the crackdown did slow down over the course of the season.
"I said at the time that this would not be an easy thing to unteach - holding up the players on the forecheck - because for 10 years teams have instilled systems like the trap and the left-wing lock," said Campbell, sitting to Bettman's right.
"There was a big difference this year in our game. And I said it would take more than a year to get this out. Sure there was a dropoff, there's always a dropoff in anything you try to do."
Bettman says the NHL remains committed to eliminating obstruction and therefore making the game more exciting.
"This season was a solid first step towards making that happen," Bettman said. "We said at the time that this would be an ongoing effort. No one expected that is would be perfect in Year 1. ...
"My objective is to sit in front of you a year from now and review another season in which there was even more flow and even less obstruction."
Bettman came armed with proof that the game had improved because of the crackdown:
there were 75 hat tricks this season, compared to 57 last year;
17 players put together scoring streaks of 10 games or more, compared to six last year;
four times as many players produce 82 or more points compared to last season;
five players exceeded the 96 points that last year's scoring leader Jarome Iginla had;
scoring by forwards increased by nearly 400 points from last season's total;
scoring by defencemen was up by nearly 100 points from last season.
"Sometimes the first step is to stop a backward trend and I think we've accomplished that," Bettman said. "The objective is to continue."
The size of goalie equipment is another reason many think scoring is generally down in the NHL and Bettman says discussion will continue on that matter.
"I've said to Colin: `Let the goaltenders wear whatever they want,"' Bettman said. "At some point the equipment will become too cumbersome and 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 too small or whether or not we're scoring enough goals.
"That will be probably be discussed this summer, but not necessarily implemented," Bettman stressed.
Other issues discussed during Bettman's address:
Nothing new to report on the labour front as Bettman says the union still hasn't come forward to begin discussions on a new collective bargaining agreement;
Bettman said time was running out for the NHLPA to sign off on a proposed outdoor hockey game before 60,000 fans at Edmonton's Commonwealth stadium Nov. 22 between the Oilers and the Montreal Canadiens.
The hurry-up faceoff instituted this season resulted in an average game time of two hours 19 minutes, the fastest game time on average in 40 years;
Bettman was pleased to point out that Buffalo and Ottawa survived their financial crisis and found new ownership;
Said that while television ratings on the CBC were down that was mostly because the Toronto Maple Leafs were knocked out in the first round. In fact, Bettman said, the CBC's 1.6 million average for playoff games this year is 40 per cent higher than in 1997-98 when Toronto missed the playoffs and overall the third-highest TV rating in the last 10 years;
While International Ice Hockey Federation president Rene Fasel mentioned to the Canadian Press during the world hockey championship in Finland that he would like to settle the NHL's participation in the 2006 Olympics before the league's labour issues were resolved in September 2004, Bettman stated emphatically that Olympic participation would be on the backburner until a new CBA could be signed with the NHL Player's Association.