League will also court HDTV audience

PITTSBURGH -- The changes might be drastic enough to tempt 44-year-old Wayne Gretzky into coming out of retirement.

After years of lobbying for a more scoring-friendly and fan-appealing league, Hall of Famer Mario Lemieux is convinced the NHL is ready to grant his wish. The only problem is ending the lockout that has doomed this NHL season and could threaten another before owners and players agree on a labor contract.

The 39-year-old Lemieux hopes he has some more goals left in him when it happens, now that the league seems determined to crack down on the on-ice mugging and the defend-every-inch-of-ice defenses that have made NHL shootouts as rare as football single-wing offenses.

The scoring dropoff is so acute that only Tampa Bay's Martin St. Louis (94 points) had 90 points last season -- not even half of Gretzky's 215 in 1985-86 or Lemieux's 199 in 1988-89. In only 10 years, the NHL has seen its goals-per-game average drop from seven to five.

With the NHL desperate to rebuild its fan base and increase national TV ratings that were lower than Arena Football's, commissioner Gary Bettman is promising drastic rules changes to bring back the speed, flow and offensive rhythm that have been missing since Gretzky was in his prime.

Lemieux's reply -- what took so long?

"There's been a lot of talk about making the game more exciting, opening up the game, bringing back the offense that was there in the 1980s and early 1990s," said Lemieux, the Penguins' player-owner. "It's going to be a lot more exciting when the NHL comes back. It's going to be a great game with, hopefully, a lot more scoring and a lot of offense ... and (less) clutching and grabbing."

Many of the new rules are being tried this season in the AHL, which expects to have at least two 100-point scorers (Binghamton's Jason Spezza and Manchester's Mike Cammalleri) and possibly more. Among them are shootouts to decide overtime ties, wider blue lines that increase the size of the neutral zone, less distance between the nets and the end boards, smaller goaltending gear, no-touch icing and tag-up offsides.

The NHL is also toying with eliminating the red line, thus doing away with the dreaded two-line passing rule and creating the end-to-end breaks so common in international play.

NHL vice president Colin Campbell met last month with six coaches to discuss the planned relaunch, saying even fans of winning teams were complaining about the duller-than-dull style of play.

"My gut tells me we will be playing (next season), and the game will be better," Minnesota Wild president Doug Risebrough said. "We have to build the game and build it around the fans."

Because of the NHL's traditionally strong fan base in cities such as Detroit, Toronto, Denver, Philadelphia and Montreal, experts say the first shutdown of a major North American sports league for a full season may not devastate the league. While baseball attendance dropped about 20 percent after its 1994-95
strike, hockey attendance increased 10 percent following a half-season shutdown in 1994-95.

"I think you can make an argument that hockey, compared to baseball, basketball and even football, has a higher percentage of hardcore committed fans," former CBS Sports president Neal Pilson said. "It's a much smaller universe, but NHL owners assume their season-ticket base and committed viewers will return when league play resumes."

The NHL is also counting on the ever-growing popularity of high-definition television to boost TV ratings that are respectable on a regional basis but minuscule nationally. Both ESPN2 and NBC plan HDTV telecasts once the league returns, though ESPN2 must first pick up its options for the 2005-06 and 2006-07 seasons.

Hockey, like football, is well-suited for HDTV's movie screen-like wide picture, which is five times sharper than conventional analog TV. The league is also excited about the ever-expanding acceptance of HDTV, which saw more than 1 million sets sold recently during the run-up to the Super Bowl.

To aid the impression that hockey is a fast, edgy game, NHL uniform supplier Reebok plans to outfit players in flashier, sleeker and more formfitting uniforms next season.

"HDTV helps all sports, but it really helps hockey," Pilson said. "Fans unfamiliar with the game can see passes being made and collected without a skip in the picture -- it helps with fans who haven't played the game."

The NHL believes the changes will force coaches to play a more wide-open style. In recent seasons, overachieving teams such as the Carolina Hurricanes, Anaheim Mighty Ducks and Calgary Flames relied on suffocating, star-controlling defenses to reach the Stanley Cup finals.

"Hopefully, we're going to take that out of that game," Lemieux said.