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Does 2004 Mark the End of an NHL Era?

From the ice to the broadcast booth, the NHL could soon look very different.

By

Updated May 12, 2004
All the elements of the story are falling conveniently into place: Whatever follows the 2003-04 NHL season, the coming months will represent a time of upheaval on the hockey landscape.

The faces are changing: Igor Larionov, one of the great stars of the 1980s and a legend in any era, has announced his retirement. Other guaranteed Hall of Famers, like Ron Francis and Mark Messier, are expected to follow. If next season is delayed by a labor dispute, we have likely seen the last of Brett Hull, Chris Chelios and several other greybeards. Peter Forsberg is widely expected to take his career back home to Sweden.

The business is changing: When the NHL and its Player's Association finally reach a new collective agreement, it is almost certain to include new rules governing free agency, draft picks, and maybe even some form of luxury tax or salary restriction.

The rules are changing: In February, NHL general managers came up with a handful of proposals to step up the flow of the game. The new rules are hardly groundbreaking, and have yet to win final approval. But the ideas themselves represent a fresh approach to the game and a willingness to consider any and all ideas in the future.

Teams are starting from scratch: Regardless of what happens in negotiations for a new collective agreement, many bodies will change places before they skate again. From the NHL roster that finished the 2003-04 season, the Boston Bruins have just four players under contract for next year. The Atlanta Thrashers and Carolina Hurricanes have six. The New York Islanders have three. Every team has veteran players who qualify for unrestricted free agency this summer. A record number of free agents will be on the open market as of July 1.

The old guard looks shakey: For the second straight year, the Stanley Cup Playoffs ended in early disappointment for Detroit, Dallas, Toronto and Colorado. To some optimistic observers, this suggests a shift in the NHL power structure, with the big-budget fatsos shoved aside by younger, cheaper and hungrier teams in towns like Calgary and Tampa Bay. It’s a little early to call it a trend. But the playoff evidence – the last three seasons have seen 12 different teams fill the 12 available conference final spots – appear to confirm what most of us suspected all along: big money does not mean success; it is simply a tool, and not nearly as important as other tools like coaching, scouting, drafting, trading, sizing up the waiver wire and - not incidentally – working hard to get the puck from the other guy.

But for many hockey fans, the most notable makeover will be the one that alters the look and sound and feel of an NHL game. Big changes in hockey broadcasting are said to be in the works on both sides of the border.

The NHL’s television contract with ABC and ESPN expires when the 2004 Stanley Cup is handed out. Whether the game returns to either network next season is anyone’s guess – some speculate that ESPN and ESPN2 will carry a reduced schedule, with ABC taking a pass. But early signs are not encouraging for American hockey fans. NHL2Night, the highlight show on ESPN2, will be cancelled. The shows popular host, John Buccigross, will either be looking for work or re-assigned. Buccigross, who also writes a column at ESPN.com, is a shameless hockey fanatic who has become the face of the game for many American fans.

The Canadian Broadcasting Corporation, which runs Hockey Night in Canada, is expected to retire the top broadcast team of Bob Cole and Harry Neale. Years ago, at their peak, Cole and Neale were easily the best yakkers in hockey, probably the best in pro sports. Nobody could convey the flow and emotion of a big game like Cole; Neale, a former NHL coach, had a terrific grasp for nuances, an understated manner and a dry wit. The old Cole-Neale tapes should be required viewing for the motor mouths occupying many broadcast booths, spouting banalities and cliches.

But the time has come. Cole and Neale are prone to embarrassing mistakes – they often have no idea why the whistle went and routinely get penalty calls wrong. The logical replacements would appear to be the number-two team of Chris Cuthbert and Greg Millen. But rumors persist that Hockey Night is in for a huge shakeup this summer, and Saturday nights on the CBC could look very different whenever hockey resumes.

This brings us to the story that, on some days at least, threatens to push the Stanley Cup Playoffs to the back page: media reports suggest that Don Cherry will not return to his first-intermission Coach’s Corner slot after this season. The fate of Hockey Night’s – and arguably Canada’s - most famous face is this spring’s cause celebre, an issue we'll be addressing later this week.

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