Much needed break for NHL

Alex Becker, 2, of Weston, Fla., stands next to a display of NHL hockey pucks on sale at the NHL All-Star block party, Thursday at the Office Depot Center in Sunrise.

The Associated Press
Published: Saturday, February 1, 2003 at 6:01 a.m.
Last Modified: Saturday, February 1, 2003 at 1:46 a.m.

SUNRISE - The NHL is unpacking for a winter weekend in South Florida, and just in time, too. If any sport needs a vacation, it's hockey.


Weekend on ice


  • TODAY: Young Stars Game and SuperSkills Competition, 6:45-9:30 p.m., ESPN.
  • SUNDAY: All-Star Game, 2:30 p.m., ABC.

  • After four months filled with bankruptcies, barely measurable TV ratings and bad feelings between ownership and players as next year's labor talks grow closer, NHL commissioner Gary Bettman no doubt will welcome a little warmth.

    Still, no matter how pleasant the ambiance of metropolitan Miami or how stress-relieving the sun must feel to those accustomed to the breathtaking cold of Calgary, Edmonton or Buffalo, this All-Star weekend will be mostly business.

    There is the usual agenda of general managers meetings, trade talks and, oh, yes, a game, too - even if it seems the American public is as disinterested in Sunday's All-Star exhibition as many of the players seem to be.

    As stars and bench-sitters alike deal with the fatigue of playing 82 games in a 180-day window, rather than the normal 192 days, many of the big names - Mario Lemieux, Mats Sundin, Joe Sakic, Ed Belfour, Brian Leetch, Pavel Bure, Saku Koivu - are hurting or out of action.

    With so little time off in a season that stretches from training camp in early September to the Stanley Cup finals in mid-June, many players now seem to find All-Star participation to be drudgery.

    That might explain why Sundin, for example, was healthy enough to score a goal and set up another Thursday night for Toronto, but will skip the All-Star game to rest his sore shoulder.

    And with scores such as 14-12 in Denver two years ago that threatened to produce more scoring than the Pro Bowl played on the same day, fans don't seem to care much about the exhibition.

    No wonder ABC will be keeping a close eye on its audience, which dwindled to an infomercial-like 1.8 rating for last year's game in Los Angeles. With so few watching - Stanley Cup finals ratings were only about twice as large - the network may be looking to bail out of hockey or substantially cut its right fees when its contract, shared with corporate partner ESPN, ends next year.

    ESPN2's ratings have been so low this season, they almost can't be measured.

    And, fittingly enough for a league in which nearly one-quarter of the coaches have changed since the season started, even having a scorecard won't assure fans of knowing who's playing and in what uniform Sunday at Office Depot Center.

    Sandis Ozolinsh, for example, was voted as an Eastern Conference starter for All-Star host Florida, only to be traded Thursday night to Anaheim. He'll play for the East on Sunday before he heads West.

    Alexei Kovalev, Pittsburgh's productive scorer, also could be packing for another destination - Toronto, Colorado, Vancouver? - after the Penguins' Craig Patrick huddles with his fellow GMs. Kovalev is due for a big salary hike that Pittsburgh can't afford.

    ``It's just rumors,'' Kovalev said, sighing, as he awaited an on-ice reunion with former Pittsburgh linemate Jaromir Jagr, also voted an Eastern Conference starter. ``Until it happens, it's just rumors. I'm happy where I'm at, playing with the guys here and having fun.''

    One team glad the break has arrived is Dallas, and not just because the Stars have three All-Stars. Thanks in part to Eastern Conference leader Ottawa's 3-0 loss in Los Angeles on Thursday night, the Stars have the league's best record.

    The significance? The last four teams to lead at the break went on to win the Stanley Cup: Dallas (1999), New Jersey (2000), Colorado (2001) and Detroit (2002).

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