The collapse of a financial deal for the debt-ridden Ottawa Senators and the subsequent report the club couldn't pay it's players for the end of December 2002 resounded like a thunderclap around the National Hockey League.

In my opinion, the Senators financial woes, and those of the Buffalo Sabres, are harbingers of far worse to come for the National Hockey League.

This isn't a chicken-little rant on my part. This isn't panic or fearmongering. The sky really is falling on the NHL thanks to years of fiscal mismanagement, short-sighted thinking and just plain stupid greed.

League Commissioner Gary Bettman can hire the best spin-doctors in the world and continue to chant his "don't worry, be happy" mantra, but it's become more and more obvious over the past several years there is much to worry about and precious little to be happy about.

Take a good, long, loving look at the NHL in it's present incarnation, hockey fans, because I believe it's going to look very different within the next five years.

- Collapse of the sale of the Ottawa Senators.

This is the topic much on everyone's mind in the hockey world. Principal owner Rod Bryden has tried for years to come up with some form of financial assistance for his hockey club, which has been drowning in debt from the first day it entered the league 10 years ago.

His plan to have the Canadian federal government bail out his and other cash-strapped Canadian franchises fell through two years ago, when Canadian hockey fans rose up in protest over the suggestion their hard-earned tax dollars should go to prop up millionaire hockey players. Despite his prominance as a supporter of the Liberal Party, Bryden's voice wasn't strong enough to convince the government to ignore the taxpayers.

The most recent deal would've seen a limited partnership buying the Sens from Bryden. According to a report in the Toronto Globe and Mail, the Canadian government would've kicked in over $100 million to Bryden as tax breaks under a ruling from the Canadian Customs and Revenue Agency. Bryden still would've been in charge of the partnership and ergo, the Senators.

But the Boston-based Fleet Bank, which was supposed to sign off on this deal in order for it to go through, backed off at the last minute, understandably nervous over bailing out a Canadian hockey franchise that has buried itself in debt for years .

Now, Bryden is left scrambling to find short-term investment within the next couple of weeks to keep his franchise afloat until at least season's end. NHL headquarters says there is no plans to step in and take over the Senators in the same manner as they did the Buffalo Sabres earlier this season. Apparently, a plan is coming together that could see Bryden get a new deal in place very soon.

But if Bryden cannot find the financing he desperately needs, what then?

The League cannot and will not sit by and allow the Senators to be taken apart, which would surely happen thanks to a clause in the current CBA which states a team has a two-week grace period to pay it's players, otherwise their contracts become void and they become automatic unrestricted free agents.

The Sens, well-managed, deep in quality talent and offering the best bang for the buck with a payroll just over $30 million US, presently are the top team in the Eastern Conference and one of the best in the NHL. To allow them to fall apart would be another black-eye for a league already suffering serious image problems.

But this would only be a short-term save by the league, which is desperately trying to sell off the Buffalo Sabres.

As a Toronto Sun reporter recently noted, Ottawa never should've been awarded an NHL franchise in the first place. They had to borrow the entrance fee, their ownership has been in a constant state of turmoil and their debt load grew with each passing season.

But the league owners were typically greedy and saw only the fast-bucks expansion would bring them. Now, most of those same owners who were around back then and were responsible for the Senators reincarnation must now consider ponying up the required money to keep this club afloat.

Poetic justice, that. But how long can they babysit the Sens if Bryden cannot find the money he needs?

And if they decide not to float the Senators, can they afford the bad publicity of seeing this franchise, one of the better ones in the league, contracted and it's players scattered throughout the league in a dispersal draft or free agency auction?

Could they afford to do this if the Senators breakthrough playoff season occurs this spring? Could they afford it if the Sens become a Conference Finalist? A Stanley Cup finalist? A Cup champion? Where's the line in the sand?

- The ongoing problems with the sale of the Sabres.

Ever since former owner John Rigas and his sons were carted off to jail in handcuffs and disgrace, the NHL has been running the Buffalo Sabres f day-to-day operations.

However, even the usually optimistic Bettman is worried about the Sabres future. He noted the team, and it's arena, continues to lose money, and publicly suggested the league could run out of money to float the team before season's end.

Local businessman Mark Hamister stepped forward a couple of months ago to purchase the club, but now there appears to be a problem with the sale going through.

According to published reports, Hamister wants the city of Buffalo, Erie County and New York state to coem up with $25 million for arena improvements before the sale goes through. Apparently the city and county have okayed the deal, but now it sits before state governor George Pataki for the final blessing.

Some in the press felt Hamister was bluffing, but given the high stakes involved for him in taking over the franchise, and the very real possibility the city of Buffalo would then have two major hockey arenas closed down (the present HSBC arena and the Sabres old home, the War Memorial Auditorium), a bluff is unlikely.

An article in the Toronto Sun suggests if the sale to Hamister falls through, the Sabres would have to declare bankruptcy, and should that happen, the club could face the same bleak "worst-case scenario" as the Senators. The franchise could fold, and it's players scattered throughout the league via a dispersal draft or auction.

This would arguably be more catastrophic than the loss of the Senators. Unlike the Ottawa Franchise, whose shelf life in the modern era has been just over ten years, the Sabres have been in the NHL for 33 seasons.

This is a club that went to the Stanley Cup finals twice in that time frame, which is as many times as the Pittsburgh Penguins, Colorado Avalanche and the Vancouver Canucks have made the dance, and more times than many other NHL teams.

This is the team that gave us Hall of Famer Gilbert Perreault and his famous "French Connection" Line. Pat Lafontaine, Alexander Mogilny and Dominik Hasek had their best seasons wearing the Sabres jersey. This is the team that gave us such memories as the "Fog Game", the "No-Goal", and "May-day! May-day! May-day!" This is a club that has always had a strong fan base, even if they were considered "small-market".

Yet all they've brought to the league could be struck away because of the criminal actions of it's former owner, and the inability to find a new owner to keep them alive.

The Sabres and their fans deserve better than this. But what does it say about the risks involved in owning an NHL franchise? Even one with the history and the fanatical fan base that the Sabres have?

-Other struggling franchises.

The plight of small-market Canadian teams like the Calgary Flames, Edmonton Oilers, Vancouver Canucks and the aforementioned Senators are well-documented.

A combination of a weak Canadian dollar and the escalation of player salaries over the last ten years have the Flames and Oilers hanging on by their fingernails, while the Canucks are facing the same grim fate if changes aren't made to help them in the next CBA.

It's become fashionable for the league apologists in the big-market media (New York, Dallas and Denver in particular) to poo-poo the plight of the Canadian small market clubs. Indeed, some even consider them one of the main culprits in driving up player salaries!

The big-market clubs, along with many of their fans and media, appear to have a "survival-of-the-fittest" attitude regarding these teams, suggesting that if they can't survive in today's NHL, they should be folded or moved to the bigger markets, preferably in the US.

As laughable as these arrogant, somewhat xenophobic rants have been, they overlook the fact many US-based clubs - small and large - are themselves facing similar hardships.

Granted, they don't have to worry about a weak dollar, but instead lack enough of those US greenbacks to cover their operating costs, including player salaries.

The Pittsburgh Penguins, former two-time Stanley Cup champions, faced bankruptcy and relocation if it's former and current captain Mario Lemieux hadn't cobbled together an ownership committe to purchase the club to keep it in Pittsburgh.

However, that may have delayed the inevitable, for if the city doesn't approve the building of a new arena, Lemieux has suggested the Pens may not survive beyond the end of the current CBA.

Meanwhile, on the US West Coast, the Anaheim Mighty Ducks continue to be shopped by their current owners, the Disney Corporation. The Ducks came into existence nearly 10 years ago on a wave of hooplah, for with Disney willing to back a franchise, the NHL was truly hitting the big time.

However, Disney has found operating the Ducks a costly experience. Mismanagment of their player roster in recent years didn't help, either, which resulted in losing seasons and a dwindling fan base. While they have plenty of money to keep the club in Anaheim as long as they like, Disney Corp didn't get to where it is today by wasting millions.

Back on the East Coast, the NY Islanders were a laughingstock on and off the ice throughout the late 1990s until they were purchased by two men who'd made their fortunes in the computer industry.

While they brought stability, and their dollars brought in some top-flight talent that radically improved the Isles, the new ownership has been unable to get a new arena built. According to media reports, the county where the Islanders home arena is located is bankrupt, as is another county where they'd hoped to build a new arena.

Without local support, the Isles braintrust won't get their new digs builts unless they pony up the cash themselves, which doesn't appear likely. Without a new arena, and with the recent downturn in the tech industry, the Islanders aren't out of the woods yet.

And in New Jersey, the Devils are facing financial concerns of their own. Apparently, their ownership under the YankeesNet umbrella isn't going to send a lot of money their way in terms of player payroll. That group has set their priorities as the New York Yankees first, the New Jersey Nets second, with the Devils to get whatever table scraps remain.

Thus, Devils management will have to continue running the tight fiscal ship they always have. Meanwhile they continue to await a new arena to be built in downtown Newark which, it is hoped, will bring in more fans and thus more money.

Meanwhile, in the Arizona desert, the Phoenix Coyotes continue to haggle with the city fathers over a new arena. Apparently plans are afoot for a new home for the 'Yotes, but it's unknown when the new arena will be completed. Meanwhile, media reports suggest the Coyotes may not survive if there is a prolonged work stoppage brought about by negotiations for the next CBA.

In Florida, where the Panthers were purchased by a new group of owners, a tight payroll has seen the club already trade away one veteran player in Dmitry Yushkevich, and has led to speculation other vets could be dealt in salary-dumps as the season progresses. The club also has to deal with an indifferent fan base as their attendence has struggled in recent years, despite playing in a new arena the past three seasons.

The Tampa Bay Lightning, their present on-ice success aside, were operating in laughingstock land for several seasons, going through three different owners since their inception ten years ago. And while the present ownership has brought some measure of off-ice stability to the Bolts, their payroll remains one of the smallest in the league.

In Nashville and Atlanta, meanwhile, the bloom is off the rose of the Predators and Thrashers, as losing seasons, unfulfilled expectations and the wearing-off of the novelty of pro hockey are hurting these teams at the turnstiles.

Factor in the Sabres well-documented woes, and it's apparent that it's not just Canadian teams that are struggling to exist in today's NHL. Getting tax breaks and sweethearts arenas deals and bringing in American dollars has done little, if anything, to ease the burdens facing these clubs.

Indeed, what does it say about owning an NHL franchise when the Dallas Stars, considered one of the league's most successful teams, is put on the block by it's present owner and cannot attract any buyers?

- Slumping attendence

Since the late-1990s, half of the NHL franchises have struggled at the gate.

This season is no different. Attendence has been down in Atlanta, Anaheim, Florida, Nashville, Phoenix, and Tampa Bay, teams that mostly came into existance within the past ten years.

Casual hockey fans dismiss this as the inability of these franchises to catch on with the sports fans in those cities. Some point to almost perennial losing seasons as another factor for the slump in attendence, and that if they were winners, the fans would turn out.

The latter may certainly be true, as witnessed by the increase in attendence this season for the Lightning, although as one report noted, they still don't draw more than 85% of capacity.

And there is much to substantiate the inability of these warm climate cities to take to a cold-weather sport like hockey, as successful clubs like the Dallas Stars appear to be the exception rather than the rule wherever NHL franchises exist in the Sun Belt.

But what is the excuse for the slumping gate in long-established hockey towns like Boston and Chicago? Why does a two-time former Cup champion and perennial Cup favorite like the New Jersey Devils struggle to attract the fans? Why does a club with marquee talent like the Washington Capitals find itself struggling at the gate? Indeed, why does a team loaded with all-stars like the NY Rangers, with a long history and a die-hard fan base, find themselves playing before more and more empty seats?

Each seems to have unique reasons. Bruins fans appear to be tiring of the prolonged Cup drought and the steady parade of star players away from the club due to ownership's tight-fisted approach to contract talks. Blackhawks fans have grown weary of years of frustration and the lack of effort by ownership to promote the club. For the Devils, the complaint has been the location of it's arena, which is based far from the city of Newark, while the Caps and Rangers have struggled to play .500 hockey with a roster full of all-stars.

Yet the fans came out for these clubs during down years in their respective histories. It's easy enough to pin the Rangers and Capitals woes on losing, but if winning brings back the fans, why aren't they coming out in Boston and Chicago? Arena problems aside, a team considered a perennial Cup contender like the Devils shouldn't have troubles bringing in the fans if they're winning.

Of several reasons, perhaps the main one is high ticket prices, which are forcing the lower-and-middle class fan base, for years the bedrock of fan support for the NHL, to stay away. In the late 1990s, teams could rely on sales of luxury boxes and season-tickets to off-set the decline of the working class fans, but now, even with teams that are successful, the lower-and-middle classes are finding it too expensive to attend games on a regular basis.

This problem isn't limited to just the above-mentioned teams. Even the Montreal Canadiens, Toronto Maple Leafs, San Jose Sharks, Colorado Avalanche, and St. Louis Blues are noting more "fans dressed as empty seats" than in seasons past. The high-flying, but financially shaky Senators have noted the same problem.

According to a report in Sports Illustrated nearly two years ago, the average cost to go to an NHL game for a family of four is over $250.00. That's the cost of four mid-level tickets, parking, a program, souvenir hats for the kiddies, four hot dogs, two beers for Mom and Dad and two Cokes for the youngsters.

Even if a team is winning, it's tough for working-class fans to afford to go to the games on a regular basis as they used to in the past.

If Gary Bettman was looking for a legacy, the shrinking fan base is perhaps the most notable.

While the league spin-doctors and media sycophants still claim tickets to attend NHL games are among the most affordable in pro sports, the fact remains they've steadily increased to the point where the working class fans are being pushed out.

And why are the ticket prices rising? The rise in player salaries.

The NHLPA doesn't like to admit that, and blame the owners for gouging the fans. There is probably some truth to that, but the fact remains the NHL is predominantly a gate-driven venue. Ten years ago, when only 20 players earned salaries over $1 million per season, tickets were more affordable.

Now, with marginal players openly sneering at salary offers of $1 million per season while the elite earn almost ten times that amount, tickets to NHL games have become more expensive.

Don't be fooled by claims the cost of attending an NHL game isn't expensive. If it were still affordable, there wouldn't be as many fans staying away, despite the obvious problems with the on-ice product, which I'll touch on later.

-Increase in player salaries.

In 18 short months, the current Collective Bargaining Agreement will expire. According recent media reports, it doesn't appear as though the league owners and the National Hockey League Players Association will be arriving at a new agreement quickly. If anything, it could drag on for months, with the very real prospect of a league shutdown until a new CBA is worked out.

Owners and the NHLPA continue to be at loggerheads over players salaries. The ownership wants to install some form of a salary cap, but the players have already stated they'll reject any attempt to cap their salaries.

The owners blame the players for the staggering rise in their salaries since the last CBA was agreed to in 1995. The players say they're not to blame, instead shifting blame to the owners for willingly paying out those salaries.

So who's to blame for this situation?

Both sides.

First, the owners shot themselves in their collective feet during the last CBA. They misjudged the players resolve to stand up to them, and facing the complete shutdown of the 1994-95 season, caved in to short-sighted thinking, not wanting to lose any further money if the season was lost.

They arrogantly assumed that they could tie players to themselves via restricted free agency, never believing players would stage prolonged holdouts to get whatever they were seeking. Most contract holdouts, as we've seen, have been as harmful to the teams as they've been to the players involved.

Worse, the owners never foresaw the huge bidding wars for unrestricted free agents. Back in the mid-1990s, it was widely assumed a player's best days were behind them once they hit their early 30s, thus their market value wouldn't be as strong as it would be when the players were in their twenties and in their supposed prime.

But thanks to improve conditioning by the players, as well as shrewd negotiating by their respective agents, and the greedy short-sightedness of many deep-pocketed big market owners, unrestricted free agency became the major factor in driving player salaries through the roof.

That doesn't leave the players completely blameless. Their greed, and their natural mistrust of ownership, is contributing significantly for killing the golden goose the owners blindly handed them in 1995.

The players come by their mistrust of the owners honestly. For decades, their predecessors were constantly screwed over by the owners. Many NHL players who went throught the strike of 1992 and the lockout of 1995 are still around, and they remember vividly how many of the current owners used the media to distort the facts and paint the players as greedy ingrates who were killing the game. That memory never faded, and the mistrust of the veterans has been passed down to the younger players via the players association.

That mistrust is hard to ignore when one hears the PA president, Bob Goodenow, state the owners have themselves to blame for the escalation of his clients salaries. However, it should be obvious to the players that the number of clubs willing to bid for their higher salaries is only six or eight out of thirty. Clearly, the majority of owners are unable or unwilling to bid for their services.

If there were a willingness to cooperate and compromise, the players would understand that they cannot continue to squeeze blood from the turnip that is the NHL. A predominantly gate-driven venue that lacks the big money advertising and televisions contracts of pro baseball, football and basketball, the league is struggling to meet the ever-increasing demands for more money from it's players.

It would be wrong to begrudge the players their right to their fair share of the profits their hard work is responsible for bringing the owners, but it's also wrong for them to be inflexible at the expense of harming their very livelihood.

- Squabbling owners

Certain big-market owners (Colorado, Dallas, Detroit, NY Rangers, Philadelphia, St. Louis, Toronto, Washington) were, and still are, chiefly to blame for escalation of salaries at the expense of the rest of the league.

This has led to owners already squabbling amongst themselves over revenue sharing.

Many of the small and mid-market owners believe it's an option the NHL must implement if they're to survive.

However, the big market teams don't want to help their small-market brethren. Their Darwinist attitude is that, if a team can't afford to compete in the NHL, they shouldn't be there, and must either move or fold.

And what about a luxury cap? Forget about it.

Many of the big-market teams have invested well over $50 million US on their current rosters. If any attempt to cap it was made at, say, $40 million to help out the smaller market clubs, those teams would be forced to submit a list of unprotected players, much the same as an expansion draft.

Only this would seriously gut the rosters of these teams, forcing them to give up good players rather than spare parts as in the expansion drafts.

And with some of the players on their rosters presently hauling in between $8-$10 million US per season, that works out to be nearly one-quarter of their payroll eaten up by one player.

The only way this deal would work is if the players agreed to a cap on their salaries, something they've stated quite plainly they won't accept.

The concept of revenue-sharing is one that apparently has worked with varying degrees of success in the National Football League. Witness teams like the Green Bay Packers and New England Patriots being able to afford to build and maintain winning franchises despite competing against big market teams in New York, Dallas, Denver and Philadelphia.

But whenever the suggestion of implementing a similar plan in the NHL, it tends to be shot down by those in the big-market cities as unworkable, that "it couldn't work in the National Hockey League".

Apparently, the reason being the revenues are generated locally, thanks to the gate and local broadcasting rights, as there isn't the deep pot of money that a lucrative national broadcasting contract could bring in.

But consider the alternative if some kind of a revenue-sharing plan is not put in place in the next CBA.

The Buffalo Sabres and Ottawa Senators - gone.

The Pittsburgh Penguins, Calgary Flames, and Edmonton Oilers, clubs with long histories, memories of Cup championships and contributors to the Hall of Fame of notables like Mario Lemieux, Lanny McDonald, and Wayne Gretzky - gone.

The Vancouver Canucks, a rising on-ice force in the Western Conference with a long history of their own - gone.

The Atlanta Thrashers, Nashville Predators, Phoenix Coyotes, Tampa Bay Lightning and Florida Panthers - gone. Lamented only by local fans, but gone regardless, with their disappearance the exclamation point on the resounding failure of the NHL's grand expansion of the 1990s.

And don't suggest these clubs could be relocated to another city. There aren't any more left to go to.

The city of Portland and Microsoft billionaire Paul Allen has been raised in the past, but if Allen really wanted an NHL franchise, surely he would've bought himself one by now.

But even if Allen does decide to purchase and move an existing team to Portland, where else could the rest of the clubs go?

Hamilton, Ontario? Sure, it's a hockey hotbed and possesses an NHL calibre arena, but remember, Canadian-based ownership didn't really leap forward to buy out the Senators, or for that matter, the storied Montreal Canadiens, who wound up sold to an American businessman. And of course, there's that nagging issue of the Canadian dollar and the high municipal taxes.

Bring back franchises to Winnipeg and Quebec City? Sure the fans are there, but the arenas, the assistance from local government and the ownership isn't. That's what drove the Jets and Nordiques out of town years ago.

Houston, Texas? Possibly, but again, no big oil tycoon has expressed an interest in an NHL franchise.

Cleveland, Ohio? The NHL tried it there in the late-1970s and couldn't make a go of it. Besides, Ohio has it's NHL franchise in Columbus, which has been doing surprisingly well at the gate for an expansion club. There's no room in that state for another.

Minnesota? Sorry, but the Wild now reside there, the one place where NHL expansion over the past ten years made sense.

Las Vegas? If pro hockey is struggling to make it in the Arizona Desert, why does anyone with functioning brain cells believe it could work in the Nevada Desert? It's not like there's some Vegas high-roller jumping up screaming for NHL hockey as an alternative to Wayne Newton and Seigfried and Roy.

Seattle? Yes, there's interest in hockey there, but unless Microsoft owner Bill Gates suddenly takes develops a love for hockey, forget about it.

The fact is, there's nowhere else for the NHL to go to. If the Senators, Flames, Oilers, Canucks, Sabres, Penguins, Thrashers, Panthers, Lightning, Predators and Coyotes fail to make a go of it within the next five years without some form of help from their big-market brothers, they'll have to fold.

Ah, but they could be moved to Europe, right?

Guess again. The amount of travel involved to shuttling back and forth across the Atlantic to play NHL games, not to mention the cost involved, rules out that possibility.

But why would it be such a bad thing for these clubs to contract? If these clubs fold and their best players dispersed throughout the league, surely it would make the NHL a better league?

Yes it would, but the contraction of the league from 30 to 20 franchises would be a major embarrassment. It would prove once and for all that professional hockey is merely small potatoes in the vast United States sports market.

All the grand talk of "growing the game" would have been nothing but empty words. It would set the NHL back as a bush-league operation. The league would be worse off than it would've been with those franchises.

Sure, the NHL never should've expanded to the level that it did, and it should've been done more intelligently than it was. But what's done is done, and the league cannot afford the negative publicity that would surely come should they lose those new clubs they opened with such fanfare over the last ten years.

Whether the big-market owners like it or not, they must find some common ground with their small and mid-market peers if they're to keep the present incarnation of the NHL alive.

Otherwise, their "me-first" attitude will cause the league irrepairable harm, which can only hurt them in the pocketbook.

-Bungling at NHL headquarters.

Throughout the past ten years, I cannot escape the feeling that half of the problems plaguing the league would never have occurred, or at least would've been properly addressed by now, if there were better people running the show at NHL Headquarters.

From the commissioner, Gary Bettman, to league disciplinarians, to the head of officiating to their PR personnel, National Hockey League headquarters is staffed by those who are incapable of improving their product.

Notice the continued inability to be proactive in dealing with players and owners regarding the Collective Bargaining Agreement.

Observe the constant footdragging in bringing in much-needed changes to improve the on-ice quality of the games.

Witness the continued farce that is their continual "crackdowns" on the uncalled obstruction that sucks the very life out of the game, making it dull as dishwater and in turn contributing to the decline in attendance.

Watch how said obstruction creeps back into the game as this season progresses, despite the assertions of the league hierarchy that this year, things would be different. See how it makes the league head office seem run by weak-spined buffoons.

Listen as the PR department spin-doctors the decline of televised games in the United States on ESPN and ABC (from 120 two years ago to barely over 80 this season), claiming the reduction of the visibility of their product on American national TV will actually increase interest while protecting the game from "over-exposure".

Finally, gaze in awe at season's end when the NHL tries to scare up another television contract when the present one expires with ABC in June. How much does anyone wanna bet ABC does what Fox Sports did several years ago and dump the money-losing, ratings-sagging NHL like a piece of rotten garbage and only offering token broadcasts on ESPN?

Anyone wanna double their bets by gambling the league won't find a taker with NBC or CBS? If you were an American television executive, would you take a chance on a pro sports league that rates behind tractor pulls, bowling and pro wrestling in the consciousness of the American sports public? A product that is about as exciting as watching paint dry?

Would you want to take on a sport where two teams could face bankruptcy by season's end, where a prolonged work stoppage is considered inevitable in 18 months, where it's believed anywhere from between six to ten teams could be out of existence when a new CBA is finally hammered out?

Why is this the fault of the NHL front office?

Let's look at it this way, folks. At the end of the 1993-94 season, the NHL was hot, hot, hot.

The league had expanded into Anaheim, Tampa Bay, Miami, Ottawa and San Jose, with more teams expected on the way within the next ten years. Potential owners were lining up to own an NHL franchise.

On the ice, the game was a tremendous, fast-paced mix of high-flying offence and skilled defence. There were 8 players who potted over 100 points that season. 13 others netted over 90 points. One player had 60 goals. Another six chipped in over 50. Another seven had over 40.

The top goaltenders that year had goals-against averages that ran from 1.95 to 2.65, with save percentages all well over .910 and three of them were tied for the lead in shutouts with 7.

Best of all, the playoffs that season provided some of the most exciting action in years. As a result, Fox television eagerly signed on to televise NHL games throughout the United States. The good times were on their way.

Then came the work stoppage that scrubbed half the 1994-95 season. Still, the league could've rebounded from this setback, if not for the watering down of the quality of the on-ice product.

This was due to several factors. First, the overall quality of the players was reduced as the league expanded. Players who had no business in the National Hockey League were now regulars, many of them on expansion clubs.

Because many of these teams, as well as some of the struggling established ones, needed to be competitive against stronger opposition, they resorted to a more defensive-oriented system, patterned after the stylings of the surprise 1995 Cup champion New Jersey Devils.

However, as time went on, obstruction disguised as "defensive play" began to take over. Granted, this had been a problem prior to the mid-90s, but it really took over after the '94-'95 season.

The quality of the game suffered as uncalled obstruction continued to rise as seasons passed. While the more skilled players complained, the league promised to crack down several times, only to see the games slip back into their dull, plodding, obstruction-laden ways before mid-season.

Compounding the problems was the increase in size of goaltenders equipment to the point where they resembled oversized "Michelin Men" between the pipes. The league promised to establish stricter guidelines, but of course these were rarely enforced except in extreme cases (Former Flyers netminder Garth Snow's "two-by-four" shoulder pads leap to mind).

Last season, while the top 25 goaltenders sports better goals-against averages and save percentages than they did nine years ago, no one scored 100 points. Only two players got over 90 points, and only two more got over 80. Only one player cracked the 50 goal mark. Only three player potted more than 40 goals.

Fans routinely spouted off about how boring the games had become, how lifeless and devoid of real scoring action, but the league front office blissfully ignored their complaints. When the fans began staying away from the games in part because they were so dull, Bettman and company crowed attendence had actually increased, though those figures were misleading as they took into account teams that hadn't existed in previous years.

The NHL is now back to where it was before the Bettman years, struggling to attract the attention of American fans who consider pro hockey as little more than a curiousity.

Trying to get players and owners to agree on salary and luxury caps is a thorny issue. Attempting to make the league competitive whilst pursuing a policy of aggressive expansion is a difficult line to walk. But when the product you're attempting to promote is actually less exciting now than it was ten years ago, the direct blame lies with the league headquarters, whose lack of vision and firm guidance is one of the major reasons the calibre of NHL hockey has regressed.

-So what are the solutions?

The immediate issue here is to help the Ottawa Senators find the financial funding they need to survive, and to assist the sale of the Buffalo Sabres. No brainer here, which the league is already doing.

However, if the Senators and Sabres cannot be saved, unfortunately the league will have no choice but to contract them. The next course of action, then, is to ensure this situation doesn't happen again to the other struggling franchises.

Easier said than done? Perhaps. No one really knew how bad the Sabres ownership was until they were hauled away in handcuffs. The Senators, debt-ridden since day-dot, were an easier problem to fix, something that could've been addressed years sooner before it ever got to the mess it's presently in.

But the two sure ways to ensure other franchises don't go down the toilet is for the players and owners to reach common ground regarding the upcoming CBA.

A cap on player salaries is needed if the struggling franchises are to survive. It doesn't have to be extreme or draconian, but it needs to be one that ensures all clubs can survive.

And a luxury cap on what teams can spend must also be implemented. A cap somewhere between $40-$50 million is perhaps the best solution all around, however, the only way that can work is if teams already paying over the cap are given a one or two year grace period to finish paying out present contracts, or if players receiving salaries at the high end ($7-$10 million) agree to pay cuts. In this way, teams that have already spent over the cap wouldn't have to risk losing players to some form of dispersal draft.

Some form of revenue-sharing must also be implemented. Even though it cannot probably work in the same manner as the NFL, there has to be some way the "have" teams in the NHL can help float their "have-nots" until such time as the new salary and luxury caps can positively affect the rosters of all teams whereby the smaller market clubs can better survive and compete. At that point, it could be a flexible program, designed to reduce the amount spread around if the small market teams can better stand on their own.

As for the on-ice product, that's an easier solution. Crackdowns on obstruction must be done according to the NHL rulebook. That's what worked for years leading up to what is now referred to as the "dead-puck era". You don't punish players for bodychecking or hip checking, but you do call them for holding, hooking and interference, the three infractions that call uncalled the most.

To a lesser degree, goaltenders equipment must be more strictly regulated. No one's suggesting a return to the equipment of twenty years ago, but surely there can be modifications made that would still provide the goaltenders maximum protection, whilst at the same time ensuring the size doesn't become detrimental to scoring. It's supposed to be the goaltenders ability to stop pucks, not the size of their equipment, that must make the difference between a score and a save.

To bring these changes about, however, requires understanding, cooperation, imagination, intelligence and long-term solutions. Qualities that have been sorely lacking in the National Hockey League for many years.

Thus, I don't hold out much hope for the survival of the NHL in it's present form.

The players refuse to believe the owners pleas of poverty and continue to mistrust their intentions.

The owners collectively believe the players are killing the game with their demands for more money, which many claim they don't have, some of them justifiably.

Big market owners believe their small-market peers should sell their franchises if they cannot make a go of it, and if they have to be folded, the better for them as they'd stand poised to bolster their rosters with the cream of the contracted clubs rosters.

Meanwhile, the owners of struggling franchises insist they cannot continue unless something is done to bring both player salaries in line and to provide them with some form of financial assistance.

Both the owners and players are braced for a prolonged work stoppage, with both sides seemingly refusing to yield, which will only harm them both when the dust finally settles on their dirty little war.

And as the next season and a half grinds on, ticket prices remain high, and the game remains boring while the fans stay away, all the while the league front office continues to insist everything's fine.

How can anyone look at this dog's dinner and believe everything's going to work out fine?

I'm not pessimistic by nature, indeed, I'm an optimist, but looking at this nest of vipers, there's very little hope here of any real positive change that will keep the present version of the NHL alive and vibrant in the coming years.

So enjoy the next 18 months while you can, hockey fans. Pray that other clubs don't end up like the Sabres and Senators between now and June 2004.

If you don't already have ESPN Classic or the NHL Network, I'd recommend subscribing to them, because after June 2004, they're going to be the only places you'll see hockey, and those games will be re-runs.

And they'll be probably the only place you'll see the NHL as it once was, when it all looked so promising, before greed and stupidity and shortsightedness killed it. 


The respective plights of the Ottawa Senators and Buffalo Sabres are the talk of the league, and rightly so. The slide into bankruptcy of the Sens and the struggle to sell the Sabres to Mark Hamister has everyone in the NHL, from players to owners to league officials to the media, offering opinions as to what the future holds, not just for these two clubs, but for the future of the league.

There is speculation either club could end up sold to Microsoft billionaire Paul Allen and moved to Portland. However, there was a report in the Calgary Sun that offered convincing arguments as to why this won't happen.

Sure, Portland has a modern arena and has a large sports market (22nd in the US), but as Sun reporter Eric Francis points out, Allen's passion is basketball, not professional hockey. And he's not someone who takes kindly to losing money. Francis cited Portland Oregonian columnist Paul Buker as reference for where Allen stands on NHL hockey. Buker claims Allen has no interest in pro hockey, even saying publicly he didn't like it.

Moreover, according to Francis, Mr. Allen commissioned a study several years ago to determine the feasibility of bringing NHL hockey to Portland. Suffice to say, he was told it would be a money-losing venture.

If that's the case, folks, it only buttresses my statements in last week's Soapbox on the state of the league, where I noted that Allen has never come forward with a stated interest in landing an NHL franchise.

Mr. Francis finished his article by arriving to the same conclusion as I did: NHL franchises will fold up and die rather than be relocated, because there really isn't anywhere else for them to go.

Still, that hasn't stopped some in the press from speculating on potential new locations for the Senators and Sabres if they cannot be kept in Ottawa and Buffalo.

Al Strachan of the Toronto Sun observed the move of the Quebec Nordiques to Denver and the Winnipeg Jets to Phoenix were "far from expected". He cited various interest over the years from cities like
Las Vegas, Charlotte, Houston, Milwaukee, Seattle..and Portland.

It's true few foresaw the move of the Nords and Jets to their new locations. And it's still possible an owner could be found in one of those cities Strachan noted.

Possible, but unlikely.

Times have changed since the Quebec and Winnipeg franchises were moved back in the mid-1990s. Back then, potential owners were easier to find, as witnessed by expansion into Nashville, Atlanta, Columbus, and Minneapolis, as well as San Jose, Anaheim, Miami, Tampa Bay and Ottawa before it, and the move of the Hartford Whaler to Carolina in the late-'90s.

However, since then it's been whispered that up to 11 NHL teams could be on the block. Ottawa and Buffalo, we already know about. So are the Anaheim Mighty Ducks and the Dallas Stars. It's been reported the current owner of the Vancouver Canucks has been unsuccessfully shopping the club. Thus far, there are no takers for any of these clubs.

It would be understandable for struggling teams like the Sabres and Mighty Ducks. But when successful teams like the Sens, Canucks and Stars can't attract interest, what does that say about the attractiveness of owning an NHL franchise?

And let's face facts, without a significant change in the current CBA, it's a safe bet the Edmonton Oilers, Calgary Flames, Nashville Predators Tampa Bay Lightning and Phoenix Coyotes could be posting up "For Sale" signs in several years.

We've already read the reason why we probably won't see any interest from the city of Portland. Why should we expect rich businessmen in Las Vegas, Charlotte, Houston, Milwaukee, and Seattle to feel differently?

Why should they leap onto a money-losing sports team in a league that relies almost entirely on it's gate for survival, which lacks major broadcasting deals, that has only six out of 30 teams capable of bidding for quality free agents, and is facing a potentially long work stoppage in 18 months?

If you were a billionaire businessman in these towns, would you take the plunge into conditions like those?

Meanwhile, Vancouver Canucks GM Brian Burke voiced his support of Canadian Finance Minister John Manley, who recently wound up in hot water over a phone call he made to the president of the CIBC bank on behalf of Ottawa Senators owner - and noted Liberal Party bagman - Rod Bryden.

Burke went so far as to call Manley "a hero", claiming the finance minister was the only politician in Ottawa who truly understood the plight of Canadian teams. Burke's opinion is based primarily on Manley's ill-fated scheme to subsidize NHL teams in 2000, which was shot down by an angry Canadian public.

"A hero"? Perhaps as a meatball and baloney sandwich!

A scheme to bail out struggling professional sports franchises by the federal government of any country is ridiculous. The proposed subsidization of the Canadian NHL teams was exactly that.

For those with short memories, the plan called for the Canadian government to pony up almost $3 million to each Canadian franchise.

Apart from the fact that the Canadian public was justified in criticizing the scheme as hard-earned tax dollars going to millionaire hockey players and their richer owners, the money would've been nothing more than a drop in the bucket.

For $3 million Canadian, you can't sign a first line player. Hell, you'd be lucky to land a couple of fourth-liners for that money.

And we all know that, within a couple of years, the teams would've come begging for more, uttering the same threats of relocation south of the border unless they got more cash from the public trough.

Mr. Burke did, however, raise a good point over the sports lottery system in Canada. He noted Canadians will spend over $300 million on sports lotteries, but the Canadian teams these fans bet on don't receive any revenue from it.

If Canada truly wants to bail out it's struggling NHL franchises, this is the place where much more than the pittance offered from the government three years ago could be had.

Burke also noted how Canadian teams are hit with far steeper municipal taxes than their US counterparts.

A valid point, but it's useless to attempt to argue for reductions. The cities where these teams play simply won't hear of lowering those taxes. The teams, players and their fans could yell and scream to the heavens and tear their clothing in anguish, but they won't get what they want.

Rather than going that route, they should go after the sports lotteries, for Burke is absolutely right when he says they're making money on the backs of the teams.

The Canucks GM claims he has confidence in NHL commissioner Gary Bettman to work things out. It's nice to read that someone believes in Bettman. Myself, I'm not convinced, since most of the problems the National Hockey League presently face have come on Bettman's watch.

Still, if Bettman can show as much skill and creativity in getting out of this mess as he did getting into it, I'll hail him as a genius. A demented one, for only nutbars paint themselves blindly into corners whilst singing a happy tune, but a genius nonetheless if he can extricate the league from this quagmire of misery.

Burke also pointed out the blatantly obvious in regards to the skewed financial system presently in place and called for change, but one of his own players, NHLPA president Trevor Linden, disagrees.

Seems Linden doesn't believe the Senators financial woes are a sign of things to come for the rest of the league. No, sir, Trevor believes teams that get into financial trouble always finds ways to get out of it.

Linden pointed to the St. Louis Blues nearly moving to Saskatoon in the early 1980s and how profitable they are now. He also noted the move of the Winnipeg Jets and Quebec Nordiques as teams that had difficulties and always would, so their situations resolved themselves.

You know, I've always liked Trevor Linden and his style of play, but I'm beginning to wonder if he's taken too many shots to the melon over his career.

The situation the Blues were in twenty years ago has no comparison to today. Back then, the Blues were fortunate enough to find a new owner willing to keep them in St. Louis. That ownership, however, isn't the same deep-pocketed one we see today running the Blues.

Linden apparently forgets the Blues were forced to run a tight financial ship in the late 1990s, losing charismatic star Brett Hull via free agency in 1998 and slashing their payroll by $6.7 million. They were also owned by 26 major St. Louis companies, who spent $52 million over a three-year period leading up to the '98-'99 season to cover the team's defecits and those of the Kiel Center.

Regardless, Linden is either blissfully unaware or in denial of the fact there were other cities the struggling Blues could've moved to in the early-1980s. That is no longer the case today.

The Nordiques and Coyotes situations were indeed "resolved" by moving those two clubs south to American cities, but if such a move were attempted today, there would simply be no takers for either club. As I pointed out a week ago, the National Hockey League has run out of places to move to.

And I'm certain the resolutions noted above weren't what the fans of the Jets and Nordiques, who were among the most loyal in the NHL, were hoping for!

Linden also doesn't believe there is an attendance problem in the NHL, claiming that teams always go through ebbs and flows in that regard.

True enough, but for a league that relies on gate revenue as it's only true source of revenue, which pays the ever-increasing salaries of players like Linden,which lacks a major television contract, and now has two bankrupt franchises on it's hands, it's pure folly to blithely dismiss the noticeable slump in attendance.

While the Senators declaring bankruptcy is seen as the potential death-knell of NHL hockey in Ottawa, a recent report in the Toronto Star suggested otherwise, noting how the Pittsburgh Penguins rose from bankruptcy in 1998 to become a team that hasn't lost money since it came under the ownership of it's current star player, Mario Lemieux.

Declaring bankruptcy would give the club time to come up with a long-term plan that would satisfy it's creditors, according to the Star piece.

While Lemieux claimed he didn't want the team he helped build to prominence to be sold and moved, it's noted he was also one of it's creditors when it filed for Chapter 11. Regardless of his motives, there can be no argument he saved the club.

Or has he? While the Pens haven't lost money since the '98-99 season, they're hardly in a situation where they can afford to retain their top players. Jaromir Jagr, Robert Lang and Darius Kasparaitis all were either traded away or lost to free agency as the tight-budgeted Pens couldn't afford to keep them. Now they're facing a similar situation with Lemieux's high-scoring linemate, Alexei Kovalev.

Indeed, why did Lemieux return to action after a three-and-a-half year retirement? He claims he missed the game, and I believe his sincerety, but I also know Lemieux is a shrewd enough businessman to know his club needed all the help it could get at the gate, so why not the return of the greatest Penguin of them all to bring back the fans?

And Lemieux has said his team cannot survive in the long run without a new arena, something the city of Pittsburgh appears loathe to provide him.

While Mario may have saved his team, one wonders if ultimately all he did was buy it time.

Then there were the comments made by the owner of the Ottawa Senators when he announced the club was declaring bankruptcy.

Rod Bryden stated it was up to the Ottawa hockey fans to determine if the Senators would have a long-term future in that city. He claims it's hard to make a go of it with a "two-thirds Canadian dollar and one-third of your seats empty".

Only the Canadian government can do about "the loonie", but I fail to see where the hockey fans of the Ottawa area haven't "stepped up", in Bryden's words, to support the franchise. Ottawa hockey fans haveturned out in droves to support their club, even during the years when they were a league doormat.

As noted by the Calgary Sun, the Senators average 16, 355 fans per game in an arena that seats 18, 500. That's averaging 88% capacity, good for 16th overall in the 30 team league.

Another report indicates the Sens attendance is actually around 14,500, as 2,000 tickets are apparently give-aways. But the unsold 4,500 tickets in the first twenty home games of the Sens equals roughly $5 million bucks Canadian, which is a drop in the bucket when measured against the club's debt.

Thus, it really doesn't matter if the Senators sold out those games, as it wouldn't have done squat to avoid bankruptcy.

A team spokesman claims the club lost $10 million Canadian last season in unsold ticket and luxury box sales. Compared to $168 million US of debt (or over $300 million Canadian), that means spit.

Granted, attendence is down slightly this season, due to high ticket prices and what is perceived as frustration amongst some Senators fans over their team's inability to make progress in the post-season. Regardless, this is only down slightly from last year's average.

Besides, the attendence wasn't the reason for the Senators woes. It was the gross financial mismangement from the club's inception in 1992, which has grown into the nightmare of debt we see today, that was, and still is, that forced them into Chapter 11 bankruptcy.

Even if the Senators sell out every game from now until season's end, even it they pack the place for the playoffs (which they usually do, as short as their post-seasons have been), even if they manage to sell 18,000 season tickets per game for every game next season, it won't be enough to pay off the Senators creditors.

Reports indicated selling out the next 21 games would pour $5.4 million into the Sens coffers, which is a lot of money to working class stiffs like me, but chump change when measured against the Senators debtload.

Indeed, given the high ticket prices, the slumping tech economy in Ottawa, the difficulty in getting to and from the Sens homes games thanks to distance and traffic, plus the cost of parking and concessions, it's a wonder the club is even averaging over 14,000 paying customers!

So why was Bryden taking the fans to taks? As more than one columnist suggests, he's merely stumping for more handouts, which is how he's stayed the team's owner for as long as he has.

As for the Sabres, the news isn't getting any better.

It was reported New York governor George Pataki rejected the aid package that would've brought about the sale of the club to local businessman Mark Hamister.

As a result, Hamister asked for and received another one-week extension in hopes of fine-tuning the deal to bring in the money from the state he claims to need before he'll agree to purchase the club.

One of my Buffalo-area readers, who's been a reliable source of information regarding the Sabres in recent years, still believes the aid deal will eventually go through. He claims Hamister is a major contributor to Governor Pataki and "other big state politicos" in their election bids, thus they owe Hamister.

While the rejection of the aid package suggests otherwise, my source believes the rejection of the package and the ongoing negotiations are "just for show". He points out Pataki approved $10 million of the $33 million for "renovations" to the HSBC arena, and believes Hamister and Pataki will reach a "mid-point dollar figure" that'll work for both sides.

For the sake of the continued existence of the Buffalo Sabres, I hope my source is right. However, he wasn't thrilled over the prospect of himself and other New York state taxpayers "subsidizing another multi-millionaire".

He appears to be in the majority, for a recent poll in the Buffalo News indicates most Buffalo-area taxpayers oppose the idea of the state bailing out the team.

For Canadians, this has a familiar ring to it.

Finally, I leave you with this thought. It's not the current CBA that brought about the financial plights of the Buffalo Sabres and Ottawa Senators. They should , however, serve as warnings to other clubs, and to the league hierarchy as well, of what can happen when greed and short-sightedness fuels the policy of expansion and the existance of new teams.


HABS FIRE THERRIEN. In a move considered by some to be overdue, the Montreal Canadiens fired head coach Michel Therrien. The club had won only twice in twelve games leading up to Therrien's firing, which saw them slide from sixth overall in the Eastern Conference to 10th and drop to under .500.

This axing comes as no surprise to anyone who's followed the Habs. Despite strong performances from a resurgent Jose Theodore, a healthy Saku Koivu, emerging stars Richard Zednik and Andrei Markov, promising youngster Marcel Hossa and slick faceoff veteran Yanic Perreault, the Canadiens would be wallowing in the bottom of the Conference standings were it not for the goaltending of Theodore and Jeff Hackett.

There are some veterans, most notably Donald Audette, Mariusz Czerkawski, Craig Rivet, Patrice Brisebois, Randy McKay and Joe Juneau, who simply aren't playing up to expectations.

Worse, the club's defensive game has been terrible, leading the league in the dubious category of shots against. Offensively, their scoring percentage has been second only to the Pittsburgh Penguins in the East, but they still rank among the worst teams in the league in shots for. Their penalty-killing, a strong suit last season at 5th overall, slid this year to 27th.

The excuse usually trotted out for these woeful numbers are the Canadiens being one of the smaller clubs physically in the league, thus making them unable to play a stronger defensive game.

Bollocks! That's no excuse for not playing a better game in your own end, and taking advantage of the crackdown on obstruction this season to use their natural advantage - speed - to get more shots on goal.

Therrien is a emotional guy who obviously cared about the team and wasn't afraid to speak his mind, sometimes to his club's detriment in the heat of game action. Emotion and passion, however, obviously weren't improving the Canadiens defensive and offensive games.

And last season's surprising post-season appearance and first-round upset of the Boston Bruins is attributed by some to be more the doing of Theodore's outstanding goaltending and the emotional lift from Koivu's amazing recovery from cancer than to anything Therrien did.

So now the mantle has been passed to Claude Julien, who's coached the Canadiens farm club in Hamilton. GM Andre Savard statedhis reasons for promoting his farm club coach as being Julien's availability, his familiarity with some of the younger Habs, and his record at every level of the game.

When queried as to when he decided to make the move to replace Therrien, Savard claimed it was the 1-0 loss to the Atlanta Thrashers that convinced him he needed to make a coaching change.

Montreal fans, and recently, some in their press, had been screaming for Therrien to be fired much earlier than when their GM reached the conclusion he had to go.

The club was free-falling in the standings for a month. Key players like Audette and Czerkawski, who were being counted on to bring in much-needed offensive depth, clashed with Therrien (their denials to the contrary) and played perhaps the worst hockey of their career. The defensive game went from bad to worse.

But Savard is not a knee-jerk general manager. He'd rather be patient than make a hasty decision that might cost him. Having seen the Habs go through a similar losing skid a year ago, he honestly believed they might be able to reverse the skid.

Still, Savard's critics are opening wondering why he didn't consider putting in a phone call to Bob Hartley a week or so prior. Hartley would've been a popular choice to take over the reins of Les Habitants, a proven winner at every level who would also satisfy the bilingual requirements of a Canadiens coach.

But Hartley instead is coaching the woeful Atlanta Thrashers, and so it falls to Julien to attempt to save the Habs season and fulfil the promise the club showed during the 2002 stretch run and playoff drive.

Julien told the press at the announcement of his hiring that this was a dream come true. For the record, Therrien also said the same thing when he was hired.

Canadiens fans will be hoping Julien's dream doesn't have the same nightmare ending as Therrien's.

FANS MAKE MOCKERY OF ALL-STAR VOTING. As the starting lineup of this season's All-Star game makes apparent, a lot of hockey fans are both ignorant and mischievous.

How else to explain Jaromir Jagr, Sandis Ozolinsh, Brian Leetch, Teemu Selanne, Rob Blake and Patrick Roy getting named to the starting lineups?

None of these players are having all-star calibre seasons, yet there they are, rubbing shoulders with Mario Lemieux, Alexei Kovalev, Mike Modano, and Nicklas Lidstrom.

The ignorance is from those who select "name players" like Jagr and Leetch, despite their less-than-stellar seasons. The mischief comes from those who deliberately - and quite proudly - "stuffed" the ballot box for less deserving players like Selanne and Ozolinsh.

Stuffing the ballots only serves to make a mockery of a process designed to let the fans have their say as to who gets to be on the starting lineups of the All-Star teams.

How else to explain Ozolinsh, who is tied for 17th overall in scoring among defencemen and has the fifth-worst plus/minus rating among blueliners with -15, getting 47,000 votes before the deadline for casting votes?

Or two women, one of them a forensic scientist, submitting Ozo's name 34,000 times in write-in ballots, pausing only to complain about the writer's cramp they got?

Hey, you really like a certain player and wanna vote for them to be in the All-Star game, even if their stats don't merit a selection, fine. You wanna stage a rally to get convince other fans to cast their vote for them, fill your boots.

But writing in a guy's name 34,000 times isn't smart or clever or a laugh. It turns the voting system into a farce, and makes the two women in question appear less like knowledgeable hockey fans and more like love-starved puckbunnies, which certainly reinforces the often-misguided opinion amongst the more chauvinistic of male hockey fans that women who follow hockey do so with the mentality of teeny-boppers.

Those who voted through ignorance can at least be forgiven . Those who deliberately tinkered with the system cannot. It's dingbats like you who make a joke out of one of the few venues where the fans opinion counts.

For years, we fans bitched and whined about how our opinion carries little weight, but when we finally get the opportunity to make our voices heard, what happens? We screw it up either through ballot stuffing or sheer ignorance!

And we wonder why the league doesn't pay attention to us...

BETTMAN USING WRONG EXAMPLES. Our "beloved" NHL commish, Mr. Gary Bettman, recently used the bankruptcies of the Senators and Sabres to go on the attack against the NHLPA.

As one reporter noted, Bettman's attitude was one of "I told you so" as he railed again about how rising players salaries were the root of all evil in the NHL.

Once upon a time, I believed that. And I still believe rising player salaries are a major concern that is hurting the NHL product.

But the financial woes of the Ottawa and Buffalo franchises had nothing to do with the rise in player salaries.

The Sens came into existence in debt, and over the years continued to dig that hole of indebtedness deeper and deeper until it became impossible to climb out. Much of that came primararily from the cost overruns in getting the Corel Centre built.

The Sabres were driven into their plight thanks to former owner and Adelphia chairman John Rigas, who along with his sons essentially treated Adelphia as their own personal piggybank. By the time the Feds came with the handcuffs, they had plundered and squandered their company's funds, which in turn left their hockey team, along with many investors, with next to nothing.

Bettman is right to raise concerns over the rising salaries, but to attempt to use the bankruptcies of these two teams to blame the NHLPA is just plain wrong. It's an obvious attempt to sway fan opinion, and does nothing to find common ground between himself and his employees.

DUMB-ASS TRADE RUMOURS. Can you tell some reporters are getting bored lately?

How else to explain the rash of dumb trade rumours flying around of late.

Like the one claiming the Tampa Bay Lightning were going to "flip" newly-acquired backup goaltender John Grahame in another trade because, according to a couple of published reports, Bolts GM Jay Feaster apparently told this to his players to mollify their concerns over the plight of popular Kevin Hodson.

Of course, the fact Hodson wasn't getting the job done as Nikolai Khabibulin's backup never factored into the equation. No, no, the Bolts were going to move Grahame on, maybe to the Islanders in a potential three-way deal.

Then there were speculations that had Roman Hamrlik all but certainly back in a Tampa Bay Lightning uniform, which included being part of the aforementioned three-way.

Never mind that Hamrlik is undoubtedly the Islanders best defenceman, a point driven home this week by his selection to the All-Star game. No, he was going back to the Bolts because, as one nitwit in the press breathlessly suggested, Isles GM Mike Milbury was getting anxious to make a trade.

Oh really? So that explains Milbury dealing off "power forward" Brad Isbister and a draft pick to the Boston Bruins for holdout defenceman Kyle McLaren.

Oh, wait, that "trade" didn't go through, although some in the Canadian press noisily claimed the deal was going down a short while ago. When it didn't, they came up with the lame excuse of the Bruins backing out at the last second.

Ignore the fact the Bruins have been in free-fall for a month now, and desperately need an upgrade in goal. No, Boston GM Mike O'Connell was going to succumb to an attack of the stupids by dealing his prime trading chip in McLaren, who could be used either separately or in a package deal to bring in said goaltending help, for a forward who has yet to reach his supposed potential and does nothing to improve the B's between the pipes.

Now, I'm sure the Bruins and Islanders have chatted about McLaren. It wouldn't surprise me to find out Feaster called Milbury to inquire about Hamrlik's trade status.

But honestly, can't these guys at least dream up trades that actually make sense to the teams involved? Good grief, some of these deals would be an embarrassment in a fantasy league!


OK, so it's more like past the half-way point of the season, but there were other, more notable stories going on earlier this month (the bankruptcies of the Senators and Sabres, ballot-stuffing for the All-Star Game, the threat of CBA war in 2004). Fortunately, things have slowed down enough for me to properly evaluate the clubs as they head into the second half of the 2002-03 season.

ANAHEIM MIGHTY DUCKS: After a December stumble that threatened to scuttle their strong early-season start, the Ducks regained their footing and cling to one of the final playoff spots in the West. A combination of good health and the tremendous goaltending by JS Giguere are keeping the Mighty Ducks in the playoff picture. As long as they can stay healthy and Giguere can retain his form, they'll be in the hunt by the stretch drive.

ATLANTA THRASHERS: They're still no threat to make the postseason this year, and the Byron Dafoe goaltending experience has not been a pleasant one, but for the first time in a while, the Thrashers have reason to hope for the future. Since hiring former Colorado Avalanche head coach Bob Hartley as their bench boss, Atlanta is no longer an easy two points, and have played above .500 hockey since Hartley came on board. This season may be a write-off, but things could be looking up in a big way for the Thrashers down the road.

B0STON BRUINS: After riding high in the East in the first two months of the season, the Bruins crashed back to earth hard, as a combination of lousy goaltending and injuries saw them slide from first to sixth in the Conference and in danger of missing the playoffs. Desperate times call for desperate measures, as GM Mike O'Connell was forced to trade holdout blueliner Kyle McLaren for under-rated netminder Jeff Hackett and blueline prospect Jeff Jillson. Hackett will finally get back into the starter's role he lost two years ago in Montreal, and should keep the Bruins a playoff contender, although it remains to be seen if they can make up all that lost ground in the standings.

BUFFALO SABRES: You've gotta feel for the Sabres and their fans. Their club is wallowing in the basement of the standings. Rumours are swirling of big-time salary dumps of key players like forward Miroslav Satan, goalie Martin Biron and defenceman Alexei Zhitnik. Worse, the supposed sale of the club to businessman Mark Hamister continues to be tied up in legal wranglings and extended deadlines. Regardless of who you cheer for, say a prayer for this club. They deserve stability and continued existence in Buffalo, where some of the best hockey fans in the world reside.

CALGARY FLAMES: After taking weeks to find a replacement for fired head coach Greg Gilbert, Flames management decided former San Jose Sharks coach Daryl Sutter would be just the guy to reverse this club's neverending struggles. And at first, it appeared as though Sutter was getting these under-achievers to come through. But as the weeks have passed, the Flames remain the same moribund bunch they were under Gilbert. If Sutter, a highly respected coach, cannot get through to these guys, who can?

CAROLINA HURRICANES:The dream season that was 2001-02 has now given way to the train wreck that is the 2002-03 version of the Hurricanes. Far too many players are underachieving this season, most notably Sami Kapanen, Bates Battaglia, and Jaroslav Svoboda. Worse, top centerman Rod Brind'amour appears lost for the season to injury. That could force GM Jim Rutherford to make a shake-up trade in hopes of salvaging the season. However, that might not be enough.

CHICAGO BLACKHAWKS: The 'Hawks are hanging in there, but like last season look to be facing a second-half battle to retain a playoff berth after yet another slump cost them ground in the West. They must strive to improve their road record if they're to improve down the stretch. The strong goaltending of Jocelyn Thibault and big forward Eric Daze's return from a back injury should bolster their hopes in the second half, but thus far, the 'Hawks remain mired in a prolonged slump. The distractions caused by Theo Fleury's off-ice problems with alcohol aren't helping.

COLUMBUS BLUE JACKETS: After hovering around .500 in the first two months of the season, the Blue Jackets went through a horrible December that resulted in the firing of head coach Dave King, who was replaced by GM Doug MacLean for the interim. Hopes for the team's first-ever playoff appearance are fading fast. Still, there's cause for hope in Columbus. Fan support remains high, free agent signees Andrew Cassels and Geoff Sanderson have been lighting it up offensively, and forward Rick Nash is battling for the rookie scoring lead. The defensive game, however, must improve significantly by next season if there is to be any real improvement.

COLORADO AVALANCHE: The question on everyone's lips this season is, "what's wrong with the Avalanche?" The long-time Western powerhouse has slipped badly this season, looked in a grim struggle with the Anaheim Mighty Ducks by mid-season for the last playoff spot in the Conference. What happened? Try a lethal mixture of an aging Patrick Roy, a lack of quality blueline depth and grit on the forward lines, and the inability of young players like Alex Tanguay, Radim Vrbata and Vaclav Nedorost to meet expectations. The Avs still possess enough talent to turn their season around in the second half, so they shouldn't be taken lightly, but at this point they cannot be taken seriously as Cup contenders.

DALLAS STARS: Like the Red Wings, the Stars are a classic example of how teams can successfully combine free agent signings with shrewd trades and smart drafting to build a contender. The nightmare that was 2001-02 is rapidly fading, thanks to the strong play of off-season acquisitions Bill Guerin and Phillipe Boucher mixing well with Mike Modano, Sergei Zubov and Derian Hatcher, as well as rising talent like netminder Marty Turco (although he's been around for a while now) and Niko Kapanen. Barring the unforeseen, the Stars appear primed for a strong second half and Cup contention.

DETROIT RED WINGS: The defending Cup champions continue to roll along, and while not as dominant as they were a year ago, it's obvious they're still considered among the favourites to win it all. While there have been some minor problems - the ongoing contract talks with impending UFA Sergei Fedorov, the occasionally average goaltending of Curtis Joseph, the scoring slump of Luc Robitaille - the Wings have plenty of depth to cover them. Best news of all is the impending return from off-season knee surgery of team captain Steve Yzerman. With inspiration like that coming for the stretch drive, the Wings will make an even stronger case to keep the Cup in Detroit.

EDMONTON OILERS: OK, so ESPN ranks them as the best NHL team for the buck, but their inconsistent play could jeopardize their playoff chances. Injuries to key players like Mike Comrie and Janne Niinimaa haven't helped, although thankfully the play of their farm club call-ups is giving them the depth to remain in the playoff chase. Still, a team with guys like Anson Carter, Mike York, and Eric Brewer on it's roster should be getting even more "bang for the buck". They've managed to avoid a mid-season swoon like the one that killed their playoff hopes last season, but it's apparent the Oilers will be skirting the razor's edge for the rest of the season.

FLORIDA PANTHERS: For a team that wasn't expected to do much this season, the Panthers have been a pleasant surprise. Head coach Mike Keenan has thus far done a terrific job with the young roster he has under his charge. While they've struggled of late and probably won't make the playoffs, the Panthers have made notable improvement this year, and should be a team to watch in the coming seasons. Most impressive of Keenan's improvement projects has been centre Olli Jokinen, who's shed the label of draft bust and is finally fulfilling offensive expectations.

LOS ANGELES KINGS: Injuries and inconsistent goaltending have hurt the Kings this season, so much so they're in danger of missing the playoffs if they fail to turn things around soon. The Kings are among the league leaders in man-games lost to injury, a list that's included notables Jason Allison, Ziggy Palffy, Adam Deadmarsh, Bryan Smolinski, Lubomir Visnovsky, Aaron Miller, and Mathieu Schneider. When that many top players are sidelined, it's going to hurt a team in the standings. Worse, however, is the goaltending of Felix Potvin and Jamie Storr, whose sloppy play has cost the struggling Kings more than one game this season. To make it back into the hunt, this club must get better goaltending from these two and must get most of their best players back healthy.

MINNESOTA WILD: Their red-hot start may have cooled slightly by mid-season, but the Wild show no signs of falling out of the playoff race. Indeed, while sitting fifth overall in the West, they're only a few points out from second overall. The Wild remained blessed with strong goaltending, most notably of late that of backup Dwayne Roloson, who's done an impressive job of carrying the load when starter Manny Fernandez went down to injury. Their strong team play as preached by head coach -and potential Adams nominee - Jacques Lemaire has shown no signs of flagging, which can only bode well as they head toward the stretch run in a month's time. Best of all is the play of emerging superstar Marion Gaborik, who remains among the league's top scorers. While his offensive pace has slowed somewhat, he's made up for it by improving other aspects of his game, including playmaking and defence. Barring a total collapse, pencil the Wild in for their first playoff appearance in franchise history this coming April!

MONTREAL CANADIENS: By the mid-way point, the Canadiens were floundering, having picked up only 3 of a possible 12 points from a long road trip to fall out of the playoff picture, then dropped games to the lowly Thrashers and Sabres. That finished head coach Michel Therrien, under whom the Habs had become the most out-shot team in the league. Enter Claude Julien, who preached more attention to defence and increasing their shot total. The Canadiens have emerged as a different team thus far and are playing .500 hockey, although it'll take another month or two to determine if the coaching chance will improve their playoff hopes. GM Andre Savard didn't please Habs fans when he received checking forward Niklas Sundstrom for backup goalie Jeff Hackett from the San Jose Sharks, who was promptly flipped to their arch-rivals, the Boston Bruins. That move could have potentially damaging consequences for the Canadiens in the playoff race.

NASHVILLE PREDATORS: After suffering through their worst start since their inaugural season, the Preds have played much better hockey by the midseason. Indeed, they're less than 10 points out of a playoff berth, although it's a stretch to suggest they'll be able to make it. The much-anticipated firing of head coach Barry Trotz has not yet materialized, although he could be a goner by season's end. Still, the season hasn't been a total waste for the Preds. Former backup Tomas Vokoun has emerged as a bonafide starting goalie, defenceman Andy Delmore is becoming one of the better offensive blueliners in the game, and former first rounder David Legwand is the club's leading scorer, finally displaying his offensive skills on a consistent basis.

NEW JERSEY DEVILS: They're still not scoring as much as their fans and critics would like, but nobody can deny the effectiveness of the Devils tough defensive style as preached by head coached Pat Burns. Goaltender Martin Brodeur continues to be perhaps the least appreciated of the top goalies in the business, quietly posting up yet another stellar season. There will continue to be whispers of GM Lou Lamoriello shopping for more offence, but with his club currently battling for second overall in the Conference, the need isn't that pressing. And since it's goaltending and defence that generally wins games in the playoffs, the Devils appear to be once again sitting pretty. It's boring hockey, but it's effective.

NEW YORK ISLANDERS: What a difference a couple of months can make! At the quarter point, the Isles were floundering, their hopes of building on their improvement of the previous season seemingly doomed. But thanks to a couple of air-clearing chats with the players by GM Mike Milbury and coach Peter Laviolette, as well as the return to action of team captain Michael Peca, the Isles have rebounded and find themselves holding down one of the last playoff spots in the East. Their mettle will be tested in the coming weeks, however, as injuries to starting goalie Chris Osgood and defencemen Adrian Aucoin and Eric Cairns could become a factor. One player to watch is recent call-up goalie Rick DiPietro, who could get his shot at solidifying a spot on the roster with the injury to Osgood. For the Isles goalie of the future, that future is now.

NEW YORK RANGERS: Speaking of improvement, the moribund and overpaid veterans from Broadway have quietly made their way up the standings and back into playoff contention. Most importantly, they've done with two key players, forward Pavel Bure and defenceman Brian Leetch, out of the lineup with injuries. For the first time in ages, the Rangers are playing less like high-priced individuals and more like a team. The key factor in their improvement, however, is the goaltending of Mike Dunham, acquired several weeks ago in a trade from Nashville. Dunham has given the Blueshirts the quality goaltending young Dan Blackburn is not yet capable of, and injured Mike Richter is no longer capable of. If he continues to play well down the stretch, and Bure and Leetch can return in time, the Rangers might have a shot at the playoffs.

OTTAWA SENATORS: The off-ice financial woes of this franchise are having little effect on the Senators players. Since rebounding from a slow start, the Sens have dominated the league and presently sit first overall in the NHL. Leading scorer Marian Hossa is now being mentioned as a Hart candidate, a clear standout on a team that appears deep in talent at all positions and ready to challenge for the Stanley Cup. However, Senators fans are tempering their enthusiasm, mindful of all those post-season disappointments. Ottawa may cruise into the playoffs as the top team in the league, but it won't mean a thing unless they can finally shake their playoff blues.

PHILADELPHIA FLYERS: Rumours of trades for better goaltending and more offensive depth have dogged the Flyers all season. What's odd about this is the fact this club is one of the top teams in the East, as well as one of the best defensively. Goaltending and defensive play, once their achilles heel, has become under head coach Ken Hitchcock the Flyers strong suits. True, their offensive game hasn't been head-turning, but a combination of injuries to key forwards John LeClair, Simon Gagne, and most recently Justin Williams and Hitchcock's devotion to defence-first are the prime reasons for this. As one reporter noted, yes, the Flyers play boring hockey now, but it's also winning hockey.

PHOENIX COYOTES: Approaching the mid-way point, it appeared the Coyotes playoff hopes for this season were finished. They were languishing in the bottom of the Western Conference standings, as injuries and underacheiving performances combined to scuttle the promise of a year before. There was talk of salary-dumping trades by the March trade deadline. However, recently the Desert Dawgs have shown signs of life. Third-string goalie Zak Bierk has more than ably filled in for the injured Sean Burke and Brian Boucher, and his steady play has seemingly lit a fire under his teammates. The Coyotes have surged in the standings and are a mere 6 points (as of this writing) from the final playoff spot in the West. If they can sustain this run, not only could they battle back into post-season contention, but the talk of salary-dumping deadline deals will quickly die down.

PITTSBURGH PENGUINS: It appears as though the Penguins playoff hopes will depend on two things, the health of Mario Lemieux and the trade status of his linemate, Alexei Kovalev. Lemieux has missed over ten straight games with a groin injury, and the Pens are clearly not the same without him. Then there's Kovalev, the team' second leading scorer whose name has been fodder for the rumour mill since Lemieux suggested his club may not be able to afford to re-sign him this summer. If the Penguins do deal "Kovy", they claim they'll want a more substantial return than the one they took for Jaromir Jagr, meaning quality NHL'ers, particularly defencemen, as the Pens lack blueline depth. However, they risk jeopardizing their playoff hopes if they deal Kovalev now. As long as the Penguins have a shot at the playoffs, which could improve if Lemieux returns healthy, Kovalev probably won't get dealt until this summer.

ST. LOUIS BLUES: It's obvious this year's version of the Blues bear little resemblance to last season's moribund bunch that sleepwalked through the regular season and bowed out meekly in the second round of the post-season. This year's Blues have taken heart from the resolve they displayed in battling through a host of early-season injuries to key players to once again take their accustomed place among the top four teams in the West. Of course, it doesn't hurt that most of the early injured, like forward Keith Tkachuk and goalie Brent Johnson, have returned to form, stoking the Blues strong mid-season performance. Now, if they can only get Chris Pronger back in time for the playoffs, they might have a good shot at a Cup run.

SAN JOSE SHARKS:Another desperate team facing dire straits, the Sharks made a three-player deal with Montreal and Boston to bring in gritty defenceman Kyle McLaren to bolster their blueline. However, McLaren missed the first half of the season with his trade holdout, so he may not begin to have a positive impact on the Sharks until next season. While San Jose remains in striking distance of a playoff berth, they cannot afford a mis-step, like a prolonged winless skid. As trade rumours swirl about captain Owen Nolan and other expensive Sharks, it's apparent this team's playoffs have already begun.

TAMPA BAY LIGHTNING: The early season bolt from the blocks that saw the Lightning sitting among the top teams in the East has slowed noticeably by mid-season. The Bolts are now scrabbling with the Canadiens, Penguins, Rangers, and Islanders for one of the last two playoff berths in the East. While the team's best offensive players are still giving their all, the Lightning are suffering from a lack of quality blueline depth, and the struggling goaltending of Nikolai Khabibulin. Not much can be done about the former, but hopefully the addition of John Grahame as a backup will give "the 'Bulin Wall" enough rest to regain his form for when they'll most need it, down the stretch.

TORONTO MAPLE LEAFS: All the wailing and gnashing of teeth by Leafs fans has faded to cheers and sighs of relief. The Maple Leafs put their early-season struggles behind them and climbed back into the playoff picture in the East, jockeying with the Boston Bruins for fifth overall in the Conference. Prominant in the Leafs resurgance is the goaltending of Eddie Belfour, who has Toronto fans saying "Curtis who?" with his outstanding play, and the goalscoring of Alexander Mogilny. Defence and injuries, however, remain problem areas for the Leafs this season, which could become factors as they approach the stretch drive.

VANCOUVER CANUCKS:The Canucks remain one of the most exciting teams to watch, but they've stumbled slightly at the midseason point, giving up first and second overall in the Conference to Dallas and Detroit. However, the Canucks faced a similar slump earlier in the season and rebounded well. Given the depth of talent, the imminent return of blueline stud Ed Jovanovski, and the lethal one-two offensive punch of Markus Naslund and Todd Bertuzzi, there's no reason to believe the Canucks won't be battling for the top spot in the West by the stretch drive.

WASHINGTON CAPITALS: Back in December, there was speculation the Caps were planning blockbuster trades involving Jaromir Jagr, Peter Bondra or Olaf Kolzig, based in no small part on complaints from team owner Ted Leonsis of his team's lacklustre performance. Leonsis tongue-lashing must have worked, as the Caps have roared back into the playoff picture, taking over first place in the Southeast division. And who's powered this resurgence? The very players the rumourmongers believed were going to be dealt! Granted, the Capitals would still like to bolster their blueline depth, but somehow I doubt the names of Jagr, Bondra or Kolzig will come up in any media trade rumours!



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