The Return of the NHL

After an absence prompted by a lengthy standoff between owners and players, the National Hockey League is back, with the 2005-06 season in full swing. Chicago Sun-Times columnist Ron Rapoport and Scott Simon check out the action on the ice.

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SCOTT SIMON, host:

This is WEEKEND EDITION from NPR News. I'm Scott Simon.

Time for sports. The National Hockey League is up and running once again after an entire season off the ice. Up and skating, I suppose I should say. But did that lost season in disputes between owners and labor leave the fans' laces in a knot? The iceman cometh; from Chicago, Ron Rapoport.

Ron, thanks for being with us.

RON RAPOPORT reporting:

Thank you, Scott.

SIMON: I don't want to say did the fans come back to hockey. Are people finding hockey now that we're a quarter through the season?

RAPOPORT: Well, do you know where the Outdoor Life Network is on your television set? I know it's on my cable grid somewhere, but I can't find it. You know, ESPN gave up on the game and so it's on the Outdoor...

SIMON: Yeah.

RAPOPORT: ...Life Network, which I think the last time anybody paid any attention to it they were doing the Tour de France, you know, Lance Armstrong, but, having said that, local cable ratings--I mean, local hockey ratings, within the various NHL towns are pretty good. And attendance is up, Scott. In November they had played to 90 percent of capacity, which is their best November ever. And 24 of the 30 clubs are drawing more than they did two years ago when they last played hockey. So the fans are back, yes.

SIMON: What about the rule changes this season? They were supposed to create more offense and bring in more fans.

RAPOPORT: Yeah, one of the things they did was--they're quite drastic rules changes and a lot of the purists aren't really happy about it but they seem to be having the intended effect. Basically, they were meant to cut down on rough defense tactics, open up the ice a little bit, and increase scoring, and that's worked in a big way. Scoring is up 26 percent, there are more than six goals a game, which is more than a decade, but the big change has been the end of the tie hockey game, Scott. You know, they have a five-on-five--if the score is tied after three periods now, there's a five-minute period of four on four, and then a shootout where the teams, you know, take turns sending a guy racing down the ice toward the goalie. And you...

SIMON: Yeah. We should explain in hockey it's not an actual shootout. There's so much klepping around in hockey, you have to understand nobody actually draws a gun. But it's...

RAPOPORT: Not exactly.

SIMON: ...a ...(unintelligible). Yeah, exactly, yeah.

RAPOPORT: No, you run--it's like in soccer where one guy goes down the ice...

SIMON: Yeah.

RAPOPORT: ...or down the field against the goalie. And the purists really hate this. They think it's just awful, but it's made for some very exciting hockey. Scott, last Saturday in New York, there were 15 shootout rounds until the Rangers finally beat the Capitals. So...

SIMON: Good Lord, 15, huh?

RAPOPORT: ...it's pretty exciting stuff.

SIMON: Quickly, Wayne Gretzky, the greatest, is coaching now, the Phoenix Coyotes. Sometimes the best players don't always make the great coaches.

RAPOPORT: Well, you know, he's learning what it's like to coach a mediocre team. The Coyotes are right around .500, and for a guy who was always one of the nicest guys in sports, his players are really hearing it from him. One of his players said, `Nobody wants to be chewed out by Wayne Gretzky, but he hasn't missed anybody.'

SIMON: `Spit on me, Wayne. Spit on me.' Ron, thanks very much. Ron Rapoport, columnist for the Chicago Sun-Times.

RAPOPORT: Thank you, Scott.

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