PEBBLE BEACH, Calif. (AP) – The NHL’s board of governors approved the sale of the Nashville Predators and changed the league’s scheduling format Thursday night to allow every team to face each other at least once every season.

Paul Kelly, the new executive director of the NHL Players Association, also addressed the league’s owners during a late-afternoon session to open the board’s two-day meeting at an elite resort on the Northern California coast.

After a three-year experiment in developing rivalries in hockey’s far-flung outposts, the NHL voted to go back to the scheduling format used before the 2004-05 lockout, most notably decreasing the current eight games against every team’s divisional opponents to six.

Starting next season, teams will play just 24 total games against their four divisional foes, 40 against the rest of the conference and 18 against the other conference – one game against all 15 foes, and three home-and-home series against wild-card opponents.

“The sense of the board was we heard the concerns raised by some of the fans, and this was an attempt to be responsive to the concerns of our fans,” NHL commissioner Gary Bettman said, while still claiming intradivisional games draw the league’s biggest crowds. “Every team will play every other team at least once.”

After the lockout, the NHL returned with a determination to spark division rivalries with a top-heavy new schedule. But both players and fans grew to dislike the schedule’s monotony and the reduced chances to see the other conference’s biggest stars.

Last January, 22 of the NHL’s 30 teams voted to scrap the intense divisional slate. The expected rivalries simply never developed, resulting in dull scheduling quirks such as the San Jose Sharks’ three home games and four overall meetings with the Los Angeles Kings in November.

Meanwhile, each conference’s biggest stars made fewer appearances on the other side of the continent, draining fan interest. Pittsburgh star Sidney Crosby, now a third-year pro, will play his first regular-season games in Vancouver, Edmonton and Calgary next week.

“They’re tired of seeing the same guys week after week,” Kelly said of his players. “They would prefer to see those interconference teams two times, more than once.”

Kelly even said the players would entertain the notion of an 84-game season – allowing every team to play a home-and-home series against one division in the other conference each year – if owners agreed to reduce the number of preseason games.

Bettman said the owners could be open to the notion, but it hasn’t been formally proposed yet. The new scheduling format is binding only for next season, meaning further changes could be made next year.

The NHL also rubber-stamped the sale of the Predators to an investment group led by David Freeman, the CEO of a venture capital firm. Outgoing owner Craig Leipold attended the meeting, and Freeman – who isn’t allowed to attend a board meeting without a finished deal – could formally close the sale with his group by Monday.

“Obviously from our standpoint it’s a little bit of closure,” Predators coach Barry Trotz said after Nashville’s 6-5 win in Ottawa on Thursday night. “I think it’ll be a big boost for us as a franchise and I think the local ownership is going to work hard to make us a viable market.”

Freeman’s group still needs approval from Nashville’s Metro Sports Authority and the city council to implement the revenue-maximizing changes to the arena lease for the Predators, who lost $70 million in Leipold’s 10 years of ownership, according to the outgoing owner.

“We’re looking forward to welcoming David Freeman into the league,” Bettman said. “We think local ownership, coupled with the good work the mayor has done to modify the lease term, bode very well for the future of this franchise.”

Six months ago, Leipold had a deal to sell to Canadian billionaire Jim Balsillie for $220 million. But that transaction fell through in June when the co-CEO of Blackberry makers Research in Motion Ltd. started taking season ticket deposits in Hamilton, Ontario.

Bettman said the new owners group signed a standard consent agreement that includes provisions to keep the team in Nashville through the near future.

“We all love it in Nashville and I think for us players our main focus is just to play,” Predators right wing Jordin Tootoo said. “There’s nothing we can do about what goes on up top. Bottom line, we all want to be in Nashville.”

Bettman also said the NHL salary cap will rise next season because of an expected increase in revenues, but the commissioner wouldn’t cite a cap figure yet. The current cap is $50.3 million.

AP freelance writer Sean Farrell in Ottawa contributed to this report.

AP-ES-11-29-07 2331EST

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