Schedule and Preds get green lights; Kelly, Ferguson face the music

PEBBLE BEACH, Calif. -- Forgive us for being a bit cynical about the "new" NHL schedule the league's board of governors produced Thursday afternoon.

If it looked suspiciously like the old, pre-lockout schedule, that's because it's exactly the same.

It only took three years of force-feeding fans a steady diet of eight divisional games to realize that the very people they were determined to lure back after the lockout were being turned off by the repetitiveness of the schedule.

The selling point was that the games would create more passionate rivalries. Except no one in Tampa Bay wants to see the Atlanta Thrashers four times a season no matter how exciting Ilya Kovalchuk is. And while teams in the East loved the concept of avoiding expensive trips out West, the format denied Western fans a chance to see Sidney Crosby and Alexander Ovechkin.

As if to reinforce that point, Crosby is about to make his first trip to Western Canada since coming into the league, and the anticipation is terrific. Too bad it took three years for it to happen. But at least it did happen after a 26-4 vote in favor of the new schedule that will go into effect next fall.

And so it is that divisional games will drop from eight to six; there will be four games against each of the other 10 conference teams and one game against the 15 teams in the opposing conference. That leaves three so-called "wild-card games," which will be divided up by preference or natural rivalries. To start with, for instance, the six Canadian teams will play home-and-homes against each other.

"And we did it notwithstanding that this is likely to be the third year in a row with record attendance and the fact that divisional games are better attended than any others we did want to be responsive to the fans," NHL commissioner Gary Bettman said Thursday.

Luc Robitaille, president of business operations for the Kings and the highest scoring left winger in NHL history, said the vote indicated the enthusiasm for seeing a broader cross-section of the league.

"For us, a team like L.A., it's important to see the other teams from the U.S.," Robitaille said. "We've had a lot of discussions that I've listened to, but today, [the vote] was nice and easy."

Curiously, this may not be the last we've heard of the scheduling issue as new union head Paul Kelly told reporters his players would agree to go from an 82-game schedule to 84 games if owners were willing to drop preseason games from the maximum of nine to five.

Going to 84 games would provide for home-and-homes against all non-conference teams, which would be ideal in terms of exposing the entire league to the game's best players.

Bettman seemed agreeable.

"I told Paul what adding two more games might do is give us one division out of conference that you play at home, one division that you play on the road and the third division you play home and away, and then you rotate them," Bettman said. "So, that might be a good way to integrate 84 games if everybody decided that's what they wanted to do.

"That's something I would have to discuss with the governors. Now that I know that the players know I am interested in that, that may be a refinement to what we did."

The league went to an 84-game slate for two seasons from 1992-1994, but went back to 82 in1995-96 after the lockout-shortened 1994-95 season.

The board of governors will wrap up their meetings by midday Friday (just in time for golf, naturally) with what is expected to be a spirited discussion of the state of the game.

Expected to be debated: the decline in scoring (through Tuesday night, the average was 5.4 goals per game, down from 6.2 in 2005-06), questions about the standards of officiating, possible strategies for further opening up the game, including larger nets.

Mo' money, mo' money

Bettman confirmed what has been expected -- that league revenues are expected to rise again this season, which will mean another jump in the salary cap from its current $50.3-million level. It would be the third straight hike in the cap, although Bettman wouldn't say just how much he expects the rise to be.

"I don't want to share it with you yet because it's a little too early in the season," Bettman said. "It's one thing for me to share it with the owners with all the appropriate caveats; it's another to run loud with it. It's only November, and while our projections are good, they tend to get refined over the season."

That won't necessarily be good news for a number of small-market U.S.-based teams, who can barely afford to spend at the current level. One of those teams that won't be happy to see the payroll go up will be the Nashville Predators, whose $193-million sale to a local group was approved Thursday by the board of governors.

Despite the fact The Tennessean reported Thursday that the Preds are averaging 12,924 in paid attendance through 11 home games (not nearly enough to sustain the team long term), Bettman said the new ownership group was a positive move.

Said Bettman: "I believe this new ownership group and the modifications on their lease terms and the composition of the group, which has a number of important, prominent people from Nashville on it, I think will give this franchise every opportunity to get back to the levels it was when it first came into the league. So, this is an opportunity to move forward in a very positive way."

Let me introduce myself ...
If some NHL players were expecting Kelly to take over as head of the players' union and immediately start kicking owners in the shins, they're going to be sadly disappointed.

Kelly made his inaugural visit to the board meetings Thursday, preaching the need for both sides to do everything in their power to avoid another labor stoppage.

"I actually started by telling them a little bit about my professional background, which is the fact I have spent 27 years as a trial lawyer and I have tried dozens and dozens of cases to juries and state and federal courts and that there's something invigorating about the fight," Kelly said. "Between hockey players, who are never shy to take on a fight, and a trial lawyer, who has had many, if it comes to that, I hope that my guys would be well-represented.

"That said, I really think that the way to approach this for the good of the fans, for the greater good of the sport, is to try and work through these issues. I told them expressly that it is my view that any labor interruption in this sport would be devastating, that the public, particularly in the United States, would turn away in disgust and that we owe it to the game and to the fans to work through issues and to avoid any discussions of lockouts and strikes. And I sensed a positive agreement on the part of the owners to that comment.''

Kelly is a former federal prosecutor whose life as a lawyer includes prosecuting some of the most violent gang and organized-crime members in America. He has also represented organized-crime figures as a defense attorney and was involved in civil cases in the wake of the 9/11 terrorist attacks.

On Thursday, he told the governors he hasn't had enough time to look over the collective bargaining agreement to know whether the players would exercise their right to re-open the deal after next season, the fourth of the post-lockout accord.

"We're going to wait until the end of this season and see where we are," Kelly said.

Kelly spoke to the board for about 35 minutes, and one governor asked if some of his constituents were upset at his appearance at the meeting.

"My response to that is a couple of things," Kelly said. "One, there is going to be a reservoir of players, particularly some of the senior guys, that might hold that view. But frankly, in my judgment, it's a new day. We can't continue to hold those views of this relationship. We've got to talk, we've got to communicate; we can't have this kind of cold war approach.

"That said, I did tell the players' executive board of the Players' Association that I had been extended this invitation and I will tell you that every member of the executive board unanimously endorsed and encouraged me to come down here and to meet with and address the owners. It's not an issue."

Still trouble in paradise for Ferguson
The view of the Pacific Ocean across The Links at Spanish Bay is breathtaking enough on its own, but it's got to look a little like heaven to John Ferguson.

The Maple Leafs GM has endured a miserable week in Toronto, where he has all but been burned in effigy as the Leafs struggle to stay afloat.

Think Rome aflame and you have an idea of the frenzy Leaf Nation is in over the state of the Leafs, who sat in 14th place in the East and were 2-5-3 in their last 10 games before they edged Atlanta 4-2 on Thursday.

The fact the Leafs were just four points out of a playoff spot seems moot for those who have been clamoring for the team to make radical changes, either in on-ice personnel or behind the bench or in the front office.

Earlier this week, Ferguson's main supporter in upper management, team president and CEO Richard Peddie, was quoted in one of the Toronto newspapers as saying he had made a mistake in hiring Ferguson. Peddie later said his comments were taken out of context.

"I've said this many times, just another day in Leaf Land. But it's hard to top a couple of the ones recently," Ferguson said.

Has it been tough on him?

"It's interesting. Really, to me, it is background noise for what my job is, my focus. Now, can we completely block it out when it affects family or children? No, you can't. And we stress to our players, 'Make sure you're focusing on the task at hand,'" Ferguson said. "I'm a proponent of controlling what you can control. And that requires a great deal of mental strength, just like any professional endeavor.''

Lest he be seen as retreating to California, Ferguson was quick to point out he'd long planned to come to San Jose, and then Pebble Beach, to take in some West Coast games and attend the meetings.

"This was all planned. It's good to get to see some teams in the West. Looking forward to a productive set of meetings," Ferguson told reporters Wednesday night. "Listen, we know what we have to do. So that focus and that urgency remains. With me being here, it'll be a good chance to speak with some of the guys [GMs]. I've got a few meetings set up. We'll discuss some things.''

Ferguson has been regularly savaged in the Toronto media and on call-in shows since he took over in August 2003. But the team's poor play of late has refocused attention on trades and signings that have yet to pan out for Ferguson. Those include, but are not limited to, the acquisitions of Jason Blake and Vesa Toskala, and whopper contracts given to Bryan McCabe and Pavel Kubina in an unprecedented fashion.

The Leafs, of course, have not won a Stanley Cup since 1967, which brings to mind an interesting question. Does playing in hockey hotbeds, markets where the passion for the game runs highest, make it more difficult to win in this age of 24-hour sports programming, the Internet and talk radio?

The Rangers have won one Stanley Cup since 1940. Philadelphia hasn't won a Cup since 1974. Montreal hasn't won since 1993. Edmonton hasn't been a champion since 1990. Calgary has won just one Cup in their history. Ottawa has yet to win one.

"I still firmly believe there are so many more advantages to our market than challenges," Ferguson said. "With the sold-out building every night and the passion of the fan base and being a Leaf in Toronto, that doesn't change."

Scott Burnside is the NHL writer for ESPN.com.