Bettman: 'NHL is reinvigorated'

It's only the third week of the season, but commissioner Gary Bettman is not shy about trumpeting the new, reinvigorated NHL.

Bettman was positively beaming when he talked about the league's early-season momentum at a Toronto luncheon earlier this week.

"Clearly, our league and our game have undergone tremendous change. The 2005-06 season is still young, but everyone from casual fans to expert commentators like many of you here today concurs that NHL hockey has been reinvigorated," proclaimed Bettman.

The commissioner credited the change to a slew of new rules introduced at the start of this season and the league's commitment to clamping down on obstruction.

Stiff penalties for diving, two-line passes being allowed, tag-up offsides, smaller goaltender equipment, limiting puckhandling by goalies, increasing the offensive zones and the use of shootouts to settle games tied after regulation has resulted in an increase in scoring and excitement being restored to the game.

The average number of goals per game through the first 93 games of this season has increased 33 per cent in comparison to 2003-04. Half of games tied after 60 minutes are being decided in overtime. Less than a third of games were decided in overtime in the first part of the 2003-04 campaign.

Third-period comebacks and lead changes have increased three-fold, while clutch-and-grab tactics and teams icing the puck seem to be on the decline.

"This all adds up to good news for fans of our terrific sport and of the superb athletes who play in the NHL," said Bettman.

Bettman also said the NHL's turnaround has a lot to do with better competitive balance and the league's partnership with the players, crediting the new collective bargaining agreement for creating "a framework that has enabled teams in smaller markets to sign top players."

"Talent has been more equitably distributed throughout the League. Long before the puck dropped on the 2005-06 season, fans in Edmonton knew that by trading for a superstar like Chris Pronger, their team had been significantly strengthened," said Bettman.

Bettman said the job is not complete, however, admitting there is more work to be done, and that the league must stay the course.

"Our member clubs, our officials, our players and our hockey operations people will face many challenges in the weeks and months ahead," said Bettman. "My job is to make sure that everyone stays focused on the objective of fostering competitive NHL hockey that features flow, skill, speed, puck movement and skating."

Still, the commissioner is confident the game will continue to improve over the course of the season.

"To use a hockey analogy, for the first time in a long while, the NHL has momentum. I'm determined to see us build upon it and grow this great game," concluded Bettman at the end of his speech.