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In the NHL, the game is good but business stinks

Here's the good news for hockey: The Red Wings and Penguins are locked in a tremendous Stanley Cup Finals, the second straight season that the best team in the league (Detroit) and the team with two of the best players (Pittsburgh) have faced off for the Cup.

There are great young players in different places around the NHL, and more on the way. The rule changes effected out of the 2004-05 lockout have made the game fun and fast.

"The game of hockey," the recently retired Bobby Holik said, "is better than it's been since I came into the league almost 20 years ago."

But that's where the good news ends.

On Tuesday, a Phoenix bankruptcy court judge will hear arguments on whether the Coyotes, with reported losses of $360 million in the 13 seasons since the franchise relocated from Winnipeg, should become property of the NHL, which has been providing financial assistance to the club, or should go through bankruptcy and then likely be sold to Jim Balsillie, the co-CEO of BlackBerry maker Research In Motion. (NHL Commissioner Gary Bettman said yesterday that their are four prospective buyers for the club who would keep it in Phoenix.)

The Coyotes are just the biggest problem in a league that has had trouble stabilizing small-market franchises and now has the economic woes felt by everyone around the world on top of that. "I'm sure that Phoenix isn't the only team in trouble," Balsillie said.

Bettman and the league's owners killed the 2004-05 season to gain "cost certainty" via a hard salary cap and revenue sharing while still trying to grow the sport around the United States with a national television deal that would put hockey on par with the big three of football, baseball and basketball. Five years later, the product has vastly improved. But what else has?

The national TV deal Bettman has coveted has produced partnerships with Versus and NBC. Those deals put a paltry $100,000 in each owner's coffers and haven't provided nearly enough attention for the stars of the game.

"The league could definitely do better on a network TV deal in the States," NHLPA director Paul Kelly said. "Versus is doing a lot better, but we would like to have a better deal. I think there a lot of people in the league that share my view."

Bettman has cited higher attendance numbers and increased revenue every year, including this one. He said last week that revenue grew 4 percent this season, but the decline of the Canadian dollar would bring revenue into the red.

That is small comfort to the Coyotes, or the Columbus Blue Jackets, who announced they have lost $80 million in the last seven seasons. Or the Islanders, who need the Lighthouse Project approved to come close to stemming losses of nearly $10 million a year. Or the Nashville Predators, a team Balsillie tried to buy two years ago, but the league didn't want them moved.

Holik, an NHL veteran of 18 seasons, is infuriated by the talk of saving the weak markets. A league of 26 teams instead of 30 would do fine, he believes.

"I'm an old-fashioned, free-market capitalist, and I bet so are all the owners," said Holik, who spent three seasons with the money-losing Thrashers. "Supporting the weak teams at the expense of the strong ones is insane. You lose money, you lose the big teams and big stars so that the bad teams can survive? That's not America. That's socialism."

Canada, that somewhat more socialist country to the north, might help solve some of the problems. Balsillie wants to bring a team to Hamilton, Ontario, a city near Toronto. And Friday, a group of investors expressed their desire to bring an expansion team to Toronto.

Bettman was seen by many in Canada as anti-Canadian, encouraging franchises such as the Jets and Nordiques to move to the United States in the mid-1990s. Some wonder if the sentiment is still in place.

"I haven't felt that, really. I'm just trying to bring a team to an underserved market," Balsillie said. It's up to the 30 league owners to decide who's in, who's out and who moves where, but Bettman is the point man.

"We like where we are," he said last week. "We believe that our franchises can all be successful where they're currently located. We try to make it work. I think at this stage to pronounce that our expansion and the places where we are isn't working is premature . . . Our ratings are growing very nicely with a partner who is growing with us. And it's playing out pretty much the way we planned. We think we are doing OK."

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