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NHL hopes to score with TV

This year, NHL stands for the New Hockey League.

There are new teams, new rules, new management, a new superstar, new leadership, a new television contract and a new image-consciousness.

"A lot has changed," said Gil Stein, the new president.

It was just six months ago that the NHL was in the midst of the first players' strike in league history. The NHL was about as popular as President Bush's economic policy.

But the strike ended in time for the playoffs. And the majority of the NHL Board of Governors voted that the status quo wasn't good enough in the 1990s and gone was longtime president John Ziegler.

In these times, marketing (and marketable players) is the key to a sport franchise's success. A point hammered home by the San Jose Sharks.

And the key to marketing hockey in the United States is television.

The NHL needed to make it possible for many people to see games on television, not just the lucky few who could get SportsChannel America.

The league struck a five-year deal with ESPN, which reaches 60-million viewers (three times as many as Sports- Channel America). There also may be games on network TV.

Everyone knows the NBA is FAN-tastic. The NHL also plans to toot its own horn and market its version of Michael Jordan, Charles Barkley and David Robinson. Not a bad year to start, with the long-awaited arrival of projected superstar Eric Lindros of the Philadelphia Flyers.

The one more "new" the league needs is a collective bargaining agreement with the NHL Players Association. The current agreement expires at the end of the season. Stay tuned.

A Stick-y vote: The NHL Board of Governors will vote by fax Monday on whether to keep the temporary amendment to the high-sticking rule. The amendment makes it a penalty if sticks are at waist height. The old rule was shoulder height.

That is the only rule change made during the Board meeting in August that was subject to a review after the preseason and before the start of the regular season.

"I don't like the new rule, too many penalties," Lightning general manager Phil Esposito said. "I think we'll vote to put it at chest high."

And what does Esposito think of the new rule for holding an opponent's stick?

"It drives me nuts."

Coach wanted: If there is one team that doesn't need a head coach, it's the star-laden Pittsburgh Penguins.

But somebody's got to set the lineup.

The Penguins still don't have a head coach just two days before the start of the regular season.

Assistant coaches Rick Kehoe, 40, Barry Smith, 40, and Rick Paterson, 33, have been running training camp, but none of them have been mentioned as a candidate for the head job.

Over the summer, the Penguins were unable to reach terms with either Eddie Johnston (the fired general manager of Hartford who is still under contract) or Scotty Bowman, who took over for cancer-stricken Bob Johnson and guided the Penguins to the Stanley Cup last season.

Bowman, the winningest coach in NHL history, had said he wanted at least $350,000 per year. The Penguins apparently offered between $300,000 and $325,000 per season.

But Bowman is still available. He has a five-year contract with Pittsburgh as the director of player development and recruitment.

The Penguins are holding a news conference Monday night to announce Mario Lemieux's new $42-million contract over six years. If they can pay one player $7-million a year, the Penguins should be able to come up with the extra $25,000 to $50,000 to pay Bowman.

Musical coaches: This season, 11 teams, not counting Pittsburgh, will have new coaches: Brian Sutter (Boston), Rick Bowness (Ottawa), Paul Holmgren (hartford), Herb Brooks (New Jersey), Jacques Demers (Montreal), Darryl Sutter (Chicago), Pat Burns (Toronto), Bob Plager (St. Louis), Dave King (Calgary), Barry Melrose (Los Angeles) and Terry Crisp (Tampa Bay). Four were leading other NHL teams last season: Sutter (St. Louis), Bowness (Boston), Holmgren (Philadelphia) and Burns (Montreal).