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Savran: Contraction is option for NHL

Saturday, March 08, 2003

The more the merrier? The National Hockey League added nine franchises in nine years and is now buckling under the weight of the bloating.

Thirty pounds of hockey in a 24-pound bag.

Under Commissioner Gary Bettman, the league went for the money grab, expanding to areas where ice was little more than a cooling agent.

At an average of about $70 million per expansion team, the existing franchises were awash in money, lighting cigars with Ben Franklins. Now, many can't even afford the cigars.

So unless it's being used as a borrowed-from-baseball bargaining ploy against the union, the nasty "C" word -- contraction -- has reared its ugly head.

But then, maybe it's not so terribly unattractive.

Most agree there are too many teams, blurring any identity teams and players had. Can you name five Nashville Predators? Three?

And outside of Mario Lemieux, can Predators fans -- an oxymoron to be sure -- name five Penguins? Or even five Predators?

The mere fact that we're discussing contraction less than five years after the previous gluttonous expansion shows exactly how a reasonable concept turned out to be disastrously flawed in practical application.

Clearly, the novelty is wearing off in those markets not steeped in hockey tradition.

It's one thing to like your team. It's quite another to really like the sport.

When the team isn't winning, and going to the games is no longer the "in" thing to do or the "in" place to be seen, you had better be in a franchise area where the sport has roots deeper than what passes for grass at Heinz Field.

If the league were to contract, the level of play would be elevated. And the NHL has to first understand, and then admit, that its product is inferior. Even with the influx of talent streaming in from Europe in record numbers, there just isn't enough to populate 30 rosters.

If you slice four or five teams, the trickle-down effect would find third and fourth line slugs doing their mucking and grinding and clutching and grabbing in outposts such as Newfoundland, Quebec City and Wilkes-Barre.

There's no substitute for hard work in this sport, but perspiration isn't a total substitute for the skills required to play the game. Those types, so prevalent on rosters today, don't need to be gumming up the works. There's always a role for them on your team, but it shouldn't be a style of play.

Contraction would allow the league to return, somewhat, to those thrilling days of yesteryear when skill mattered and had to be defended, not lassoed.

Fewer teams would also mean fewer games to officiate, which would mean fewer bad officials. Although, unless they're willing to force referees to call the rules of the game as written, or until the league's hierarchy, comfortably nestled along carpet corridor, stop this maddening insistence on denial, all referees are bad.

And as meager as their national television contract is (and it's about to get a whole lot more meager), if they contracted, there would be fewer franchises with which to share the national TV dollars.

So contraction is a good idea, right?

Well, maybe not.

We're talking cavalierly about eliminating teams. Someone else's team, of course.

Contraction is a great idea, until the wolf comes knocking at your door. Then, all of a sudden, it's not such a stroke of genius.

It's fine to say Ottawa and Buffalo and Calgary and Nashville and both teams in Florida ought to be unhealthy scratches. But guess what franchise would be a prime candidate for execution by the league's hangman?

In case you haven't come up with the answer in the brief time allotted, allow me: Your twice-bankrupt, players-for-sale, pockets-turned-inside-out Penguins. Then, the grand plan isn't so grand.

It's easy to be so busy pointing fingers at other cities that you don't see everybody pointing at you. And after the Alexei Kovalev trade, believe me, they're pointing.

Mention lopping off a team or two, and you'll get the Pittsburgh Point. When it's your ox being gored, opinions change.

Anyone want to volunteer to fold your hockey team for the betterment of the league?

A show of hands, please. No? I didn't think so.

There are miles to go before this deeply troubled league can sleep peacefully. And maybe it should put some teams to sleep as a first step.

But if you're a hockey fan in this town and would like to see the NHL contract, be very careful of what you wish for. Most regrettably, that wish is liable to come true.

Stan Savran is the host of a sports talk show from 3-6 p.m. weekdays on WBGG-AM (970).

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