When the the NHL lockout ended, the players union and NHL executives conceded it would take at least a full season, and possibly two, to judge whether the collective bargaining agreement would produce a healthier league and if fans would return to the game in the numbers necessary to make that happen.

Since then, commissioner Gary Bettman has made appearances in which he has declared that sweeping changes in rules, rink dimensions and goalie equipment have resulted in a faster and reinvigorated game, and that attendance across the league is the proof.

Suggesting otherwise is just “looking for a negative story that isn’t there,” Bettman said.

“All of our franchises will be fine,” he said. “Everybody associated with the game is delighted we’re back and things are as positive as they are.”

Let’s examine that for a second.

In Philadelphia, Detroit, San Jose, Colorado, Tampa Bay, Toronto, Calgary, Ottawa, Minnesota, Vancouver, Montreal and Pittsburgh, that is true, with those arenas at about 100 percent capacity.

There are other cities where attendance is not that high, but ahead of the end-of-season averages for the last season played. And there are cities in which average attendance is below what is was in 2003-04, and that cannot be denied.

Attendance is down in Washington, St. Louis, Los Angeles, Dallas, Columbus and Chicago. Washington has had three crowds of less than 11,000 in the 18,277-seat MCI Center, with a low of 10,002 vs. Tampa Bay on Oct. 16. And no matter what the teams do, there will be lots of games at Buffalo, New Jersey, Florida and other cities that will be way below capacity.

This is quibbling with what Bettman has said, but he is getting ahead of himself.

The commissioner should stick to the assumption that it will take a season or two to judge whether the game’s popularity really does come back enough to state that the NHL is a viable 30-team league.

No more Moe

When Moe Mantha broke into the NHL in 1980, hazing in junior hockey was a rite of passage for rookies. It also was accepted practice in the big leagues as well, where first-year players were forced to pick up the tab for dinners in which the veterans purposely would run up the bill.

Mantha, coach and general manager of the Ottawa Spitfires, of the Ontario Hockey League, found out the hard way that things have changed. Mantha has been banned for one year as GM and a total of 40 games as coach for two hazing incidents. One of the incidents involved a series of fights between Flyers draftee Steve Downie and teammate Akim Aliu.

Also, the team was fined a total of $35,000.

Flyers coach Ken Hitchcock said hazing was commonplace when he was coaching juniors, but that times have changed.

“There’s no place for that in today’s society,” Hitchcock said. “We were all part of that before, but you can’t do that today, and that’s all about keeping up with the times.”

Trickle-down effect

A little-discussed clause in the NHL CBA has, in effect, forced a salary cap on American Hockey League players whose rights are owned by NHL clubs. The union representing those players is not pleased.

The way the deal reads, any AHL player making more than $75,000 must clear NHL waivers when he is recalled. If the player is claimed off waivers, his original team is forced to pay half his NHL salary.

The result of this is a salary cap, according to the Professional Hockey Players Association, which represents the AHL players.

“This rule has the effect of imposing a wage ceiling of $75,000 in the AHL . . . which also has the effect of suppressing wages for all players in the AHL,” wrote lawyer Jeffery Kessler, who is representing the players. The union is threatening an antitrust lawsuit.

More on visors

A survey conducted by The Hockey News found that 244 of the approximate 640 NHL players, or 38 percent, are wearing visors on their helmets. The magazine found visor use has been increasing steadily from 2000-01, when only 131 players wore visors. The Colorado Avalanche lead the NHL with 13 players using visors; the Ottawa Senators and Flyers are next with 12 apiece.

He nailed it

Bill Clough was the first of several readers to correctly answer this question posed in last week’s NHL notes column: When was the last time a Flyer led the NHL in scoring?

It was Eric Lindros, who was atop the scoring race late in the 48-game 1995 season. Lindros and Jaromir Jagr finished with 70 points each, but Jagr won the official scoring title because he scored more goals, 32 to 29.


Visit Philadelphia Online, the World Wide Web site of the Philadelphia Daily News, at http://www.philly.com/

Distributed by Knight Ridder/Tribune Information Services.


PHOTOS (from KRT Photo Service, 202-383-6099): capitals

AP-NY-10-24-05 1955EDT

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