Bad press comes at wrong time for ailing NHL

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They picketed outside General Motors Place with signs reading ?In Todd We Trust? and in T-shirts reading ?Free Bert.? They supported their forsaken right-winger in a scandal which landed Vancouver Canuck Todd Bertuzzi out of hockey indefinitely and his hospitalized victim, Colorado Avalanche forward Steve Moore, potentially unable to lace up skates under his own power ever again. As misled as the Canuck fan support appears to be, both men are in some way victimized. However, as the scars on Moore slowly heal and the scars on Bertuzzi?s reputation, as improbable as it sounds, can be redeemed, the scars on the National Hockey League may not be as easily remedied.
The incident, which is currently under criminal investigation, occurred in Vancouver on March 8. After unsuccessfully attempting to instigate a fight with the Avalanche center for unintentionally injuring Vancouver leading scorer Marcus Naslund earlier in the season, Bertuzzi decked Moore in the neck and wrestled his unconscious body to the ice 8:41 into the third period of a then 8?2 Colorado advantage.
When the smoke cleared, the unresponsive center?s body was carted out of a pool of his own blood on a stretcher, then rushed to a local hospital from the arena. Currently Moore is in stable condition after suffering two broken vertebrae, an acute concussion, and deep facial lacerations.
Last week, Bertuzzi was issued an indefinite suspension from the league, including this season?s playoffs, and should Vancouver win the Stanley Cup his name will not appear on the trophy. On the same token, the Vancouver franchise was fined $250,000 for its role in encouraging payback. Though the punishment is fitting for Bertuzzi?s blow on the unsuspecting Moore, the NHL has suffered a severe blow at the worst possible time.
Beginning on September 15, the current, extremely flawed collective bargaining agreement between the NHL and the NHL Players Association ends. At the end of this season the agreement the league has with the American Broadcasting Company runs its course and as of now will not be renewed.
In short, the last thing hockey needs presently is a scandal threatening to estrange all but the sport?s most serious fans. Unfortunately, through the media?s overzealous coverage of the incident last week, this seems to be exactly what is happening.
According to an assessment of hockey?s financial crisis by former Securities and Exchange Commission chairman Arthur Levitt Jr., the NHL?s 30 teams combined for a loss of approximately $272.6 million last season and $1.544 billion over the last ten years.
?The results are as catastrophic as I?ve seen in any enterprise of this size,? Levitt said. ?They are on a treadmill to obscurity; that?s the way the [NHL] is going. So, something?s got to change.?
Though Gary Bettman, the NHL?s commissioner, contends that the far less than obscure Bertuzzi incident will have no impact on the immediate future of the game, its effect may soon be felt.
Following the bad press suffered by the league in the last few weeks and the mass of misled people shrugging it off as ?part of the game,? in addition to the financial struggles, one can find it increasingly hard to imagine major networks battling with one another to sign a large television contract with the NHL. One can also find it harder to imagine that the National Hockey League will be able to expand its already dwindling fan base without recovering its image and even more so without reaching a solid agreement with its players.
Despite its financial troubles and recent events, this has been an incredibly exciting hockey season and there are plenty of relatively unheard positive events. In the eastern conference the top five teams are separated by just five points. Only one team, the Detroit Red Wings, has clinched a playoff berth in the west. The top ten scorers all have over 31 goals and are within seven goals of each other. New Jersey Devils? goaltender Martin Brodeur has earned an outstanding 10 shutouts this season and is only one win away from the 400-win career milestone.
Regardless, the league made the correct first step by serving Todd Bertuzzi and the Canucks appropriate punishment, but their task of recovery is nowhere near through. Instead of becoming a victim of the media, the league must quickly begin using it to their advantage to gain support and reach out to the fans before hockey?s treadmill reaches obscurity.
With the playoffs less than three weeks away it may be time to go on a public relations power play and unless the NHL can capitalize, a lockout, repeating that of the 1994?95 season, will become yet another ?part of the game.?

Dan Ceppos (dceppos@) often wonders why Bettman and NHLPA head Bob Goodenow can?t resolve their differences like Sylvester Stallone would ? through arm wrestling.