Hockey Central

The World's Best

1992-93 to 2000-01

Tampa Bay Lightning general manager Phil Esposito sat in a Russian Orthodox Church in St. Petersburg, Florida, unable to understand most of the ceremony. But he got the gist of it. His middle daughter Carrie was marrying one of his right wingers, Russian Alexander Selivanov, who would soon be nicknamed "Son-in-law-ov."

"If this had happened twenty years ago, I would have disowned her," Esposito said in his matter-of-fact manner that has yet to mellow.

But good thing for Son-in-law-ov that it wasn't 1972 any more, when Esposito siad he would "have killed a Russian to win" the famous Summit Series. With the end of the Cold War, Russia no longer was "the Evil Empire" to North Americans. Selivanov didn't have to defect to leave his native land. He simply bought a plane ticket and within two years he was taking home an annual salary of $800,000, about double the highest salary Esposito ever received en route to the Hall of Fame with credentials that included 717 career goals, two Hart Trophy wins and two Stanley Cup championships.

Esposito, the father, was happy that his daughter wouldn't be asking for money anymore. Esposito, the general manager cringed at the salary he was paying Selivanov, who to that point hadn't won anything more than Carrie's heart.

Welcome to the new era of the NHL, when Russians became regulars, salaries skyrocketed, fabled arenas made way for the state-of-the-art stadiums with luxury boxes, pucks were changed to blue dots on TV, two Canadian teams relocated, "zero tolerance" became a catch phrase, NHL players went to the Winter Olympics en masse, Brett Hull learned to backcheck and Wayne Gretzky no longer was the only hockey player people recognized south of the Mason-Dixon Line.

The new era unofficially began in 1992, when the league realized it was time to get into the 20th century before the 21st century arrived. A leadership overhaul took place to make way for people who believed that hockey's status quo needed changing.

The NHL Players' Association was the first to change. Gone was longtime executive director Alan Eagleson, who had been looking out for himself more than the players he represented and ultimately would be convicted of fraud and lost his place in the Hockey Hall of Fame. His place was taken by strong-willed Bob Goodenow. When the players went on strike for the first time in NHL history in the spring of 1992, they were armed with a leader whose tricks did not include rolling over and playing dead.

The strike ended in time for the playoffs to be saved, but not in time to save longtime president John Ziegler from losing his job. He was replaced on an interim basis by Gil Stein, the NHL's vice president and general counsel. Stein believed that the league could be a much bigger force on the North American sports scene with greater marketing efforts. He also pushed for the NHL to go to the Winter Olympics. But Stein, who would later get embroiled in a controversy over his election to the Hockey Hall of Fame, lobbied hardest for himself. He desperately wanted to become the first commissioner of the NHL but was seen to be part of the old regime. It was time for new blood and, after considering several candidates, the NHL's Broad of Governors elected NBA senior vice president Gary Bettman to superintend the league through what would prove to be a major growth spurt.

"In hindsight, he's exactly what we needed," longtime Boston Bruins executive Harry Sinden told the Boston Glode in 1996. "We couldn't have had a better person at the right time, in the right place. We got someone with energy, with knowledge, a guy who is current, upscale, vibrant – and someone who wasn't locked into our stupid traditions."

The days of croquet matches in period costumes after Board of Governors meetings in Florida were over. "When Gary came in, he was all business," former Tampa Bay Lightning governor David LeFevre said. "He was organized and right from the beginning everyone knew he was running the show."

Bettman, who had been a top executive at the NBA during its tremendous growth period of the 1980s, did not take the job until he had assurances from the league he would have power to make decisions on his own. The Broad of Governors gave him the authority. Cumbersome league committees were eliminated as most of the business of the NHL was conducted out of league offices.

The NHL was "sort of sleepy in marketing themselves," said Tony Ponturo, vice president of corporate media and sports marketing for Anheuser-Busch. "We got excited about the new attitude of Bettman and his people. They offered all the ingredients in the pot, with the potential for big growth for a reasonable price. Plus we had a unique situation. Bud Ice was a natural fit with the Ice name."

Brett Hull, in his pre-backchecking days, described the NHL's previous efforts to sell the game by evoking the name of the game's top player: "Until now, the league's idea of marketing was Wayne, Wayne and more Wayne."

Increased exposure for the NHL was part of the rationale behind the granting of expansion franchises that took place before Bettman took over in 1993. Two new franchises – the Tampa Bay Lightning and Ottawa Senators – began play in the fall of 1992. Tampa represented a new market for the NHL. Ottawa marked the return of the league to a city where it had last fielded a team in 1933-34. Two other expansion franchises had been awarded one day before Bettman was elected: the Disney-owned Mighty Ducks of Anaheim and the Blockbuster-owned Florida Panthers.

The addition of the four new franchises in important markets helped the NHL land its first U.S. network televison contract in 20 years, with Fox-TV. The NHL also had heavy commitments on cable with ESPN and ESPN2. More games on television outlets greatly increased viewers' options, though ratings numbers themselves often have shown little growth. At the same time, the NHL's presence on Hockey Night in Canada increased.

It didn't take long for Bettman to win over many who were skeptical of his approach to the business of the NHL.

"Bettman has advanced the league 10 years in the year and a half he's been here," Edmonton Oilers owner Peter Pocklington said in 1994. "He's brought energy, vision, leadership and a sense of how to make the business work."

The Bettman regime also has had its share of detractors. Many Canadians aren't happy that two Canadian-based teams – Quebec and Winnipeg – have moved to the United States. The 1998 proposal that more tax dollars or tax breaks should go to Canadian teams to help them remain competitive received mixed reviews in Canada as well.

Bettman took his share of criticism during the NHL's lockout of its players that resulted in the 1994-95 regular season being reduced to 48 games. The lockout came at an unfortunate time for the NHL. The New York Rangers, playing in the number one media market, had won their first Stanley Cup since 1940 after a thrilling seven-game Stanley Cup final series win over the Vancouver Canucks. But any audience-building momentum created by the Rangers compelling victory was halted in its tracks when the NHL shut its doors on October 1, 1994. Play was suspended for 103 days while the players and owners haggled over a luxury tax, salary caps and unrestricted free agency for a new collective bargaining agreement.

Christmas 1994 came and went with NHL players scattered throughout Europe. With the season on the verge of being canceled in January, Harry Sinden stated that the NHL's most recent proposal was, "our final, final, final, final final offer."

After 11th hour marathon negotiating sessions, a deal was struck as the players and owners approved a new CBA. One of the owners who opposed the deal was Marcel Aubut of the Quebec Nordiques whose franchise, in essence, had had handed a death sentence.

"I recognize that the majority of the industry can live with the agreement that was negotiated, but it is difficult to accept for a small market such as Quebec," he said.

"It would have been bad if we had lost a season," Bettman said. "I'm not happy we lost half a season. But we had to make a deal that was sensible." As it was, when play resumed on January 20, 1995, 468 games were lopped from the original 1994-95 regular-season schedule.

Expansion was the key to the overall growth of the NHL in the 1990s. Phil Esposito was part of the first new expansion wave in the early 1990s. Armed with nothing more than his smooth-talking charm and a plan that begged the question "Where's the beef?", he convinced the Broad of Governors to grant an expansion franchise for the virgin hockey territory of Tampa Bay by promising what he knew the Board wanted to hear.

"Everybody thought I was nuts," Esposito said, but he set out to make believers of those who thought hockey would have as much chance in Florida as a female playing goal in the NHL. (Esposito tired to do this, too. Goaltender Manon Rheaume garnered plenty of publicity for the Lightning when she played one period in an exhibiton game, but her real impact was in raising the profile of women's hockey.)

The Tampa Bay Hockey Group staged a preseason game in St. Peterburg between the Pittsburgh Penguins and Los Angeles Kings in the ThunderDome, a studium built for a non-existent baseball team. An NHL record 25,581 people showed up. Two fights broke out in the stands. "I thought I was in New York," Esposito said.

"It would be good exposure for the league to play in Florida," said Wayne Gretzky, who played in that game for the Kings.

Hockey would show it could survive in Florida. The Lightning drew record crowds of 20,000-plus during their days in the ThunderDome. The Florida Panthers, who joined the league in 1993-94, are the team that brought you flying plastic rats and a storybook run to the Stanley Cup finals in only their third season.

But it became inevitable that some franchises in the smallest markets would be forces to relocate. With growth set against a backdrop of skyrocketing salaries, economics forced the sale of the Quebec Nordiques to the Ascent Entertainment Group. Renamed and refinanced, the old Nordiques won the Stanley Cup in their first season as the Colorado Avalanche in Denver.

Winnipeg, despite a grassroots "Save the Jets" campaign, lost its team. New owners Richard Burke and Steven Gluckstern relocated the franchise to Arizona where it became the Phoenix Coyotes.

The Nordiques and Jets are both former WHA teams as are the Hartford Whalers who, in 1997-98, relocted to another exotic hockey market, North Carolina. Renamed the Carolina Hurricanes they began play in Greensboro as a new arena was being readied in Raleigh.

The Edmonton Oilers franchise is the only one of the four ex-WHA teams that joined the NHL in 1979-80 that has not relocated, only after a prolonged campaign to save the team produced a community of 35 investors to take over the club.

The NHL, which had only 21 teams as recently as 1991, now has 30. The Nashville Predators started play in 1998-99. Atlanta, home to the Flames before their move to Calgary in 1980, acquired an expansion team called the Thrashers for the 1999-2000 season. Minneapolis-St. Paul, which lost its team in 1993 when the North Stars moved to Dallas, got a new team known as the Minnesota Wild and bagan play in the 2000-01 season, alongside another new franchise, the Columbus (Ohio) Blue Jackets.

Many fear that the available pool of hockey talent will be significantly diluted by the addition of 125 or so more NHL jobs. But former Mighty Ducks of Anaheim coach Pierre Page disagrees. "We can expand because of the European's," he said. "We've gone from a redneck league to an international one."

The league has had a sprinkling of Swedes, Czechs and Finns for years, but the real influx didn't begin until the early 1990s, when players from Eastern Europe could come without having to defect.

Dave King was coach of the Calgary Flames when he said, "No one would argue that our game hasn't been improved by the Europeans. A person seeing his first game will invariably pick out a European player if you asked him to choose the best player in the game. That's because their skills are refined at such an early age."

The NHL's top three point scorers in 1997-98 were a Czech (Jaromir Jagr), a Swede (Peter Forsberg) and a Russian (Pavel Bure). The top two goal scorers were a Finn (Teemu Selanne) and a Slovak (Peter Bondra). In 1997-98, nearly a quarter of the NHL players (22.5 percent) came from outside North America, representing 16 countries. In the second round of the 1998 playoffs, 28% of the players still in contention for the Stanley Cup were Europeans.

In the Mighty Ducks locker room alone, six languages are spoken: English, French, Russian, Finnish, Swedish, and Czech. "No other job you'd see that unless you were a U.N. ambassador," Ducks goalie Guy Herbert said.

The NHL has gone so international that the 48th All-Star Game in 1998 featured a new format: "North America" versus "The World."

"Somehow I think the World Team has more interest in the outcome, like they have something to prove," Kevin Constantine said. "It has not always been easy for Europeans to come over here. I think it's a lot easier now. It's a lot more accepted now than it was 10 years ago. I think North American players felt the Europeans were probably taking ther jobs. These Europeans had to suffer their fair share of ridicule."

The Europeans no longer have to worry about feeling inferior, especially after the 1998 Winter Olympics. In the first "Dream Team" Olympic tournament, the two favored teams, Canada and the United States, went home without a medal as the Czechs beat the Russians in the gold medal game and the Finns took the bronze.

Many branded the venture as a disaster, especially after disgruntled American players damaged their dorm rooms in the Olympic village, but Teemu Selanne said, "It was something unbelievable, I still think it was worth it. We've got to grow this game. The Olympics were good for hockey."

Selanne also was part of an historic series in Tokyo, Japan that opened the 1997-98 regular season. The Ducks and Vancouver Canucks split two games at Yoyogi Arena with the results counting in the standings. While the ice wasn't quite up to par, the venture was a big success as the 10,000-seat arena sold out in three hours with most tickets priced at $225.

During recent times, the league has also suffered its share of embarrassments. Bruce McNall, chairman of the NHL's Board of Governors and owner of the Los Angeles Kings was convicted of fraud and went to jail. A little-known entrepreneur named John Spano came close to buying the New York Islanders before it was revealed that he had forged documents and wasn't creditworthy. There was Alan Eagleson's conviction for fraud in the U.S. and Canada. There was a mess in Tampa Bay, with absentee Japanese ownership eventually selling to Florida businessman Art Williams.

But through it all, Pierre Page said the NHL is still in it's "gold mine" phase in which the biggest winners appear to be the players. Their salaries have escalated, with no end in sight. Before Paul Kariya signed a two-year $14 million deal with the Mighty Ducks in December, 1997, teammate Guy Herbert said, "Paul is one of about five people who can write on a napkin how much he wants and get it. The rest of us would be shown the door."

Well, not exactly. While almost every one of the other 650 or so NHL regulars certainly wouldn't be given the keys to the vault, the 1990s have been a lucrative time to be a player. All NHL players from pure scorers to enforcers, all-star goalies and third-line checking centers have benefited. The NHL has created numerous millionaires.

The average NHL salary was about $230,000 in 1992 and now its well over $1 million and climbing. In 1996-97, there were 186 players making a million or more. The major reason for the escalation is "salary disclosure," according to Players' Association executive director Bob Goodenow. "It certainly wouldn't have happened under Al Eagleson. Some things had to change, no question. .....At the end of the day, the objective of everyone who plays is to get paid in a way that reflects their value to the overall enteprise."

Brian Burke, former NHL senior vice president and director of hockey operations, said, "It's okay if salaries increase and the industry is healthy. Right now, hockey is riding a wave of popularity. But our revenues don't match up with football, baseball and basketball. I don't think salaries can continue to escalate."

The NHL also has shown the growth through the substantial number of new arenas that have been constructed. Phil Esposito no longer can see hockey in two of the three arenas he once called home. Gone are Chicago Stadium and Boston Garden, rats and all.

The Montreal Forum, once known as the mecca of hockey, is no longer the home of the game's most successful franchise. But the feel of its legendary locker room was duplicated in the new building. No word if the ghost of Howie Morenz moved, too.

The Buffalo Memorial Auditorium, St. Louis Arena, Pacific Coliseum, Capital Centre and Spectrum no longer host the NHL. The Great Wastern Forum and Maple Leaf Gardens, the last of the "Original Six" buildings have now also gone.

During one of his last trips to Chicago Stadium, the Blackhawks' Hall of Fame goalie, Tony Esposito, took a piece of the cracked concrete as a souvenir. Gordie Howe kept a brick from Detroit's old Olympia and countless hockey fans own pieces of the Montreal Forum, Boston Garden and other facilities where NHL clubs used to play. The NHL doesn't expect to overtake the NBA, NFL or Major League Baseball anytime soon. But it is the most aggressive in going after new fans.

During the Bettman era, the NHL embarked on grassroots marketing efforts to reach boys and girls, aged six to 16 through street hockey and in-line hockey programs.

"We just want to be as good as we can be," Bettman said. "We're the league where the kids take the parents and not the parents taking the kids. And we have a lot of room for growth. When does a seven-year-old start getting control of the remote? Or buying his own tickets? We are now the sport of choice for seven-year-olds. Some day those kids are going to grow up and take their kids to games."