NHL Shakes Off Lockout, Long Layoff

As the National Hockey League prepares for the Winter Olympics break, the league is in pretty good shape, despite the lockout that ruined the 2004-05 season.

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MICHELE NORRIS, host:

The hockey competition at the Turin Games will feature more than 150 players from the National Hockey League. They'll be competing for 12 different countries, and when they do the league will take a break. 15 days off may seem like a long time for fans, but it's nothing compared with the whole season that was missed during the hockey lockout that ended last year. Stefan Fatsis of the Wall Street Journal is here to talk hockey and the business of hockey. Good to see you Stefan.

Mr. STEFAN FATSIS (Reporter, Wall Street Journal): Hiya Michele.

NORRIS: I guess the big news right now is the retirement earlier this week of Mario Lemieux of the Pittsburgh Penguins.

Mr. FATSIS: Yep. He spent parts of 17 seasons in the NHL along with Wayne Gretzky and Mark Messier, the signature players since the mid-1980s. His final numbers, 690 goals, more than a thousand assists, but much more than that this guy redefined his position. He was a hulking yet extremely gifted player and an ambassador for hockey. He ended up as a part owner of the Pittsburgh Penguins. He retired once before because of injuries. He's retiring again because of some health issues. One thing the NHL won't have to do is put this guy in the Hall of Fame, they already did that the first time he quit.

NORRIS: And he leaves a league that seems to be recovering from all those labor problems. A league that's also evolved.

Mr. FATSIS: It has, definitely. And the reason for that is that NHL owners took a very hard line with the Player's Association and in the end the players accepted a big salary cut and a per team salary cap. Now the NHL has reduced its spending on players' salaries to about 54 percent of revenue, down from about 75 percent. It says it's going to save up to 400 million dollars. Twice as many teams are going to be in the black. Fans are returning to the rinks, but there's still some operating issues for teams in smaller markets. They're sort of facing a choice, do we lose five or $10 million or do we spend up to the salary cap and compete?

NORRIS: So in this new, improved, leaner, faster NHL are more teams competitive?

Mr. FATSIS: Yeah, definitely. You're seeing some teams that were at the bottom of the standings in small markets closer to the top now, Buffalo, Carolina, Nashville. You're also, interestingly, seeing a team that used to outspend everybody, the New York Rangers, suddenly because of the fiscal restraint they're placed under they're doing great. They're near the top of the standings.

NORRIS: And money issues aside there seems to be a consensus that this is a better sport to watch.

Mr. FATSIS: Absolutely. Certainly more exciting, more offensive. Players and management got together, instituted a bunch of new rules to get rid of a lot of the clutching and holding that had characterized the league for more than a decade. So now we see a bigger offensive zone, goalie equipment is smaller, refs are calling more penalties, scoring is up, the number of shutouts is way down, and they're added this exciting shootout to settle tie games.

All of this has helped glamorous rookies that have come into the league. Two guys in particular, Sydney Crosby of the Penguins and Alexander Ovechkin of the Washington Capitals. It's also helped revive a couple of careers, notably Jaromir Jagr, who's not slowed down anymore and he's scoring a lot of goals.

NORRIS: But you say there's some downsides to this?

Mr. FATSIS: I do. The total number of penalties that have been called this season is up about 30 percent. So you're seeing more of the game played with one side, one team, skating with one more player than the other team. And if you like just seeing teams rifle shots on the net this is great, but if you really want to see five on five traditional hockey that's definitely taken a backseat.

NORRIS: Well, speaking of traditional hockey, fighting is way down. The NHL must be happy about that.

Mr. FATSIS: Yeah. The league definitely is. This has long been a big PR issue for the league. But plenty of fans believe that fighting is a natural part of the sport, a way to police against cheap shots and intimidation. Now 70 percent of NHL games, no fighting. Even in these friendlier times, though, we actually saw one of the great rarities in the NHL, a goalie fight the other night.

NORRIS: Surprised they could even move with all of that equipment.

Mr. FATSIS: One guy got a, Phillipe Sauve of the Calgary Flames, he skated out to take on Colorado's David Aebischer, who had pushed a forward on the Flames. They mixed it up briefly before a ref stepped in, but to give you an idea of where the NHL is now, Sauve was put on waivers the next day.

NORRIS: So how does the Olympic competition look?

Mr. FATSIS: Well, Canada is looking to repeat. They won the gold medal for the first time in 50 years back in '02. Wayne Gretzky put that team together. He's putting this team together as well. A couple of other players to look for, Dominik HaĊĦek at age 41 could be the goaltender for the Czech Republic and for the Americans, Chris Chelios at age 44, back on the team. He first played for the U.S. in 1984 as an amateur and then again in '98 and '02 when pros were allowed into the Games.

NORRIS: Thank you Stefan. Have a great weekend.

Mr. FATSIS: You too Michele. Thanks.

NORRIS: Stefan Fatsis covers sports and the business of sports for the Wall Street Journal.

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