Commish's cause lost in confusion

EAST RUTHERFORD, N.J. -- The most telling moment of another strained public performance by Gary Bettman was when he was asked whether research done by the league indicates fans want more scoring during the regular season and playoffs.

"Not necessarily," was Bettman's curt, puzzling response.

The occasion was the NHL commissioner's annual address to the North American and European media assembled for the Stanley Cup final, and once again Bettman sought to deflect suggestions that the NHL game has become far too low-scoring and has been badly hurt both at the gate and with TV ratings both in Canada and the United States.

He just didn't do so very ably.

For starters, the thin-skinned commish bristled at suggestions that the league is in need of fundamental change, such as taking out the red line for offside passes. He also accused the league's many critics on both sides of the border of having an "axe to grind."

Then, after arguing that higher scoring games won't necessarily increase the entertainment level to aid faltering TV numbers, he produced a variety of odd statistics all relating to goal scoring as evidence the game is more wide open now than it was last season.

Either goals matter or they don't. Bettman, however, tried to take both sides of that argument, and in so doing again came off as a defensive league executive fighting a losing public relations battle.

The quality of the game, of course, has been and continues to be Bettman's Achilles heel as NHL commish. No matter how the league improves in areas like merchandising, arenas and corporate sponsorship, the fact the game has measurably deteriorated into a low-scoring, clutch-and-grab product over Bettman's tenure continues to hurt the league's ability to attract new fans and solidify established markets.

Sure, Jean-Sebastien Giguere was on "The Tonight Show" with Jay Leno last Friday night. But that won't change the fact the league is locked in a Dead Puck Era that is choking off interest of even the most dedicated fans.

At the end of the season, Detroit forward Igor Larionov, one of the most respected individuals in the entire hockey world, suggested that the dominant style of NHL competition is "terrible."

Recently on an NHL conference call, New Jersey Devils center John Madden talked about the "stupid, simple hockey" that is featured most nights in the NHL and suggested it "hurts our crowds."

Just this week, Vancouver general manager Brian Burke said the league desperately needs to take action to improve its entertainment quotient.

Bettman, however, won't acknowledge that a problem exists, at least not publicly.

For the most part, the commish seems to be in the business of spin-doctoring rather than fixing, the same posture which has seen the quality of play decrease over the past decade as defensive techniques and coaching has veered towards a decidedly conservative style of play.

Sadly, the possibility for real change is likely to be put on hold indefinitely.

The league and it's players union are gearing up for a major labor showdown in 15 months, an imbroglio that will come uncomfortably on the heels of the first World Cup since 1996 next summer.

Bettman has repeatedly complained that the union won't come to the bargaining table, while the union says it's more than willing to talk if the league will send a proposal.

The league says it has, but the union says it didn't receive anything. And round and round we go.

Clearly, the complex and troubling labor-related issues that currently confound the league will take center stage this summer and beyond, leaving the vital issues of re-designing the game to lure more fans and larger television audiences on the back burner for the foreseeable future.

Already, the league has made it clear that its participation in the 2006 Winter Olympics won't be confirmed until after a new collective agreement is in place. Given that some of the rule changes made in recent years designed to improve offensive output, such as moving the nets farther from the end boards, have backfired and actually clogged the game up even more, it's not that surprising the NHL might be more than a little gun-shy when it comes to radical alterations in the future.

So with the economic future of the game up in the air after a season in which two franchises were forced into bankruptcy, it's likely that everything other than money issues are going to be put on hold until a new labor deal is in place.

Until then, Bettman clearly plans to obfuscate on the issues of scoring totals and the quality of the game.

"I think the game can be improved," he said Tuesday. "But is the game in a state of disrepair? I reject that notion."

At the same time, he talked of making nets bigger and reducing congestion in the offensive zone, which might make one think the league really does think it has a problem.

But the message is confusing.

At the moment, the NHL is faced with a final between New Jersey and Anaheim that pits two markets that didn't have a dozen sellouts between them during the regular season and play such defensive hockey that they are regarded as two of the league's more boring teams to watch.

Instead of a showcase, there is fear the result will be a series in which few goals are scored, nobody outside of Orange County and the Meadowlands will be watching and the appearance of a league in serious trouble will be worsened.

Bettman's biggest problem is that he has no clue how the game can be made better, and his closest lieutenants are either traditionalists or in disagreement over the changes that are necessary.

To make matters worse, Bettman has decided the best strategy is to attack those who argue the game needs to be significantly altered to make it more appealing and more entertaining to a wider audience.

Instead of encouraging debate and new ideas, he just wants all the naysayers to shut up and mind their own business.

It's no longer just Bettman versus Bob Goodenow. It's Bettman against all those who disagree, the kind of bunker mentality that is a sure sign of a league that has lost its swagger.

Damien Cox, a columnist for the Toronto Star, is a frequent contributor to ESPN.com.