The NHL turned a corner last season in its bid to make its game more enjoyable to watch. Though the improvement wasn't always discerned—the fans' attention was too often diverted by mindless acts of violence, most notoriously Marty McSorley's stick-to-the-temple assault on Donald Brashear—there was a heightened flow to the play and an increase in scoring. All in all, the game was a little better.
The four-on-four overtime championed by commissioner Gary Bettman was an overwhelming success and the average goals-per-game rose slightly (from 5.3 in 1998-99 to 5.5), but the league still hasn't emerged from an age of overcoached, defensive hockey. Most important, the issue of safety in the workplace—notably the concussion epidemic—remains unresolved. Plus, no crossover star has emerged since Wayne Gretzky's retirement in April 1999, and on the horizon is an Armageddon-in-waiting, the expiration of the collective bargaining agreement between the owners and players in 2004.
SI convened a blue-ribbon panel—broadcaster John Davidson, agent Don Meehan, New York Rangers president Glen Sather, Detroit Red Wings All-Star forward Brendan Shanahan and Washington Capitals coach Ron Wilson—to discuss the issues confronting the league.
SI: Are you happy with the way hockey is being played in the NHL?
MEEHAN: The foremost issue is the violence in the game—the McSorley incident, the Niedermayer incident [ Scott Niedermayer was suspended for 10 games for striking Peter Worrell in the head with a stick] and others. There's a real concern in my constituency. When a player talks to me about his contract, it isn't so much, "How well can I do? How successful can I be?" Or "How successful can the team be?" But "I better start looking at some security because of the way the game is played."
DAVIDSON: At the players' association meeting this summer, [ Buffalo Sabres defenseman] James Patrick talked about the players' responsibility to each other, and he spoke from his heart. I've a genuine sense that, for the first time, the players realize they've got to police what's going on.
SI: Is hockey more dangerous or violent than ever before?
DAVIDSON: Oh, absolutely.
WILSON: I think it's just that the guys are bigger, stronger and faster.
MEEHAN: The players are saying, in effect, that they're concerned about a lack of respect for each other now.