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Northern alienation has been a part of the National Hockey League landscape, long before commissioner Gary Bettman ever took office some 14-plus years ago. Bettman replaced the last NHL president, Gil Stein, who in turn had supplanted John Ziegler Jr. as the league's de facto CEO. It isn't as if Ziegler, a Detroit-based lawyer, had the interests of Canadian hockey fans front-and-centre either. The elusive dream of a United States national television contract; of spreading the gospel of hockey to the far corners of the continental U.S. was very much a part of his regime and vision as well.

Accordingly, Bettman didn't invent the cause; he just picked up the torch when Ziegler/Stein left office. Even in the face of the large-scale indifference to professional ice hockey south of the border, Bettman resolutely pursues the Grail - and the hope that one day, the light bulb will go off and millions of novice fans will follow the lead of super-model-turned-hockey-mom Christie Brinkley and become mad about hockey.

In his defence, Bettman hasn't been the enemy of the Canadian game that so many bloggers and web-posters suggested this week. Bettman championed the Canadian assistance program, which subsidized small-market Canadian teams during the 62-cent dollar era. Also, the decision to go to Turin for the 2006 Winter Olympics was largely a concession to the players who wanted to play; and to the fans in Canada, who wanted NHL pros to participate. If he'd been thinking strictly of the impact on U.S. television audiences, he would have stuck to his guns and kept the NHL out of last year's Olympics.

Still, the league stumbled badly this week when it set the television schedule for the first round of the playoffs and gave CBC the chance to televise the second game of that highly anticipated New Jersey Devils-Tampa Bay Lightning playoff series in its primetime Hockey Night In Canada slot. It's not that anyone minds watching Vinnie Lecavalier or Martin Brodeur, two great Canadian talents; it's just that there's little rooting interest for either the Devils or Lightning among the vast majority of Canadian hockey fans. If the Stanley Cup final eventually produces an all-American match-up, so be it; people will still tune in.

But with three Canadian teams alive and Saturday night telecasts on Hockey Night In Canada such a long-standing tradition, what in the name of Ralph Mellanby were they thinking by giving the biggest game of the day - the Pittsburgh Penguins against the Ottawa Senators - to NBC? It can only mean they thought Sidney Crosby's presence, live across the network, on the second Saturday of April, would resonate so greatly with American hockey viewers that there'd be a stampede to the television sets and help to create the sort of genuine excitement about the game that's been lacking oh these many decades. As if. In fact, the best illustration of this ongoing inability to penetrate the market came on opening night when the national cable rights holder, Versus, switched away from the Dallas Stars-Vancouver Canucks' game before it ended in a handful of markets, so that it could broadcast an infomercial. Think about that for a second. Not for a CSI-sort of ratings grabber; or for a 'we-interrupt-our-regularly-scheduled-programming' news bulletin; not even for a replay of last year's bass-fishing showdown. The fact that a rights holder would, under any circumstance, believe that its interests were better served - and revenues enhanced - by flogging Ginzu knives or ab machines or weight-loss programs to an audience of how many people at that time of night is the sort of news that should send shudders through the New York office - and maybe, just maybe, convince them not to take all that Canadian support and love for granted.

The last thing the NHL needs now is to see this growing northern alienation take root. Canadians have threatened to walk away before - usually after lockouts or strikes - but always flocked back when the game returned. There was a massive uproar against the decision to show the Pens-Sens' game in the afternoon, a demonstration of the passion that NHL fans have in Canada for playoff hockey and the institution of Hockey Night In Canada. One of these days, the league is going to make a similar sort of call and find the response far more muted. That'll be the day they have something to worry about.

THE POST MORTEMS BEGIN: In the days of sanitized responses to every query or decision made by an NHL team, the need to read between the lines becomes more and more necessary all the time. Wayne Gretzky made a curious observation on the day of the Phoenix Coyotes' house-cleaning this past week, after president Jeff Shumway said the team would conduct an orderly search for its next GM. Gretzky's comment: "Let's put it this way, it's probably a benefit to the franchise and to the person who comes in that I don't know him." Huh? What does that mean exactly? For starters, Gretzky knows virtually everybody in the hockey world, some better than others. Secondly, the GM and the coach will need to work together to come up with some sort of plan to turn the sorry Coyotes around. Clearly, the fact that the Coyotes' many and varied failures were attributed to Gretzky surrounding himself with so many friends and associates (FOG) is a major sore spot with the Great One. He called the organization's decision to fire Mike Barnett, his former agent, one of the hardest days of his life. The Coyotes plan to approach up to seven or eight candidates for the opening and the early line suggests many of the usual suspects - Steve Tambellini (Vancouver), Jim Nill (Detroit), Don Maloney (New York) and Dave Taylor (Los Angeles) - will be on Shumway's list. Gretzky also needs to find a new assistant coach and his first choice is to bring back Rick Tocchet, who remains on an NHL-mandated unpaid leave of absence, stemming from those gambling allegations in New Jersey that surfaced just before last year's Olympics. At some point, if prosecutors don't go forward with charges against Tocchet, the Coyotes are hoping the league will reinstate him. Barry Smith is off to Russia to coach; Grant Fuhr and Ulf Samuelsson will be back behind the bench next year, no matter what happens with the other opening for an assistant coach. The Coyotes' primary need is to find a scorer or two to bolster their pop-gun attack. After Ladislav Nagy was dealt to Dallas, only Shane Doan managed more than 40 points this season (he had 55). Unbelievably, Jeremy Roenick - despite all the problems and issues he faced/created - finished fifth on the team in scoring with 29 points in 70 games (after averaging fewer than 14 minutes of playing time per night). Roenick, who spent most of the last month of the season grousing about his lot in life and the possibility that he might not return, now wants to play one more season in order to get to the 500-goal plateau (he is five shy at the moment). Just who might give him a tumble is anybody's guess; probably no one, although the Philadelphia Flyers will have money to spend and room on their young roster for a veteran player. Roenick last played for the Flyers before the lockout (they traded him to L.A. just before the start of the 2005-06 season, for salary-cap reasons, so they could afford to pay Peter Forsberg, then newly signed to a two-year contract that runs out on July 1). Roenick would cost them a fraction of what he earned pre-lockout; the question would be, 'could Flyers' coach John Stevens handle Roenick if he goes off on another me-first rant about ice time or responsibility, if his role on the team were negligible?' No matter where, or how, it plays out, Roenick would have to promise to be on his best behaviour if he expects to land another NHL job next season. Money would be the other factor. Nowadays, with the way the salary cap is set up, more and more teams are going to need between six and 10 players, all willing to play for close to the minimum, in order to justify the dollars they pay to their high-end stars. There was a time when it was thought all of those cheap players would be youngsters, coming out of the minors and juniors. Instead, it may well be that if the Roenicks and Jeff Friesens and Brad Mays of the world cannot find gainful employment at the seven-figure salaries they're used to but want to keep playing, they may have to price themselves attractively on the free-agent market to get a nibble  --- The next neck on the NHL's chopping block may be that of Columbus Blue Jackets' general manager Doug MacLean. The Blue Jackets are conducting their own organizational review this coming week and MacLean may be asked to explain how it is that the other three recent expansion teams have all made the post-season at least once now, but his team has never come within 19 points of a playoff berth. The irony is that happened in their inaugural season, when they managed 71 points in 82 games with Dave King behind the bench, Ron Tugnutt in goal and Geoff Sanderson and Espen Knutsen leading the way offensively (Vancouver was eighth that year with 90 points). The Blue Jackets missed by 21 points in the post-lockout season; this year, they were 23 points out, despite a $40.4 million payroll  --- Next year began for the 14 non-playoff teams this past week and for some, that means putting their senior hockey staff on the road, in a scouting capacity. Yes, that was Oilers' coach Craig MacTavish, in the press box in Nashville Wednesday night, watching the first game of the Predators and Sharks' series. In order to be competitive again next year, the Oilers need to sign at least two prominent unrestricted free agents - one up front, one on the blueline. The Oilers could use a triggerman to play with Ales Hemsky, who - appearances to the contrary - did not shoot the puck any more this year than he did last year (only 122 shots in 64 games as opposed to 178 shots in 81 in the post-lockout season when the led the Oilers with 77 points and earned a six-year, $24 million contract from the team). Scott Hartnell of the Predators might be one possibility to fill the void. A left-handed shot who turns 25 this coming Wednesday and has six full NHL seasons under his belt, Hartnell scored 22 goals in 64 games for Nashville, averaging only 15:43 of playing time per night. If Scottie Upshall can play as well as he did for the Flyers once his ice time was bumped up and his role changed, could Hartnell do the same in Edmonton? The fact that he's from Lloydminster, AB. and returns there every summer may help too. The Oilers understand that recruiting free agents can be difficult in their market, but it's obviously easier to recruit players from the general geographic area. Defensively, the thinking is that no matter how Nashville does this spring, Kimmo Timmonen will be on the move. Timmonen was 11th in the NHL in scoring among defencemen (55 points in 80 games); among the players that finished ahead of him, only Chris Pronger and Nicklas Lidstrom had a better plus-minus rating. Timmonen isn't going to replace Pronger's minutes or presence, but he is one of the NHL's most skilled puck-handling defencemen. The problem is, the market for defencemen is drying up (Sami Salo, Chris Phillips, Anton Volchenkov all recently signed new contracts or contract extensions with their respective teams), so Timmonen could command a small fortune on the open market. Philadelphia is the favorite to land him; they own the rights to his brother, Jussi Timmonen, and also have two other Finns on their blueline, Joni Pitkanen and Lasse Kukonen  --- Before he hit the road, MacTavish gave a frank and honest appraisal of a season gone sour, taking some of the responsibility on himself for failing to push the right buttons with at least a couple of players, Joffrey Lupul and Raffi Torres. MacTavish was especially blunt about Lupul's year - the clip was played everywhere this past week: "Lupul was a failure from out standpoint," he said. "A young player with that much ability, who scored 28 goals, looked like he'd never get another one by the end of the year"  --- Of all the injuries that decimated the Oilers down the stretch, none hurt them as much as the loss of Jarret Stoll, to a concussion. Stoll isn't coming around as well as the Oilers hoped; his symptoms persist, even though the two concussions came within a two-week span at the end of January. He didn't return after playing on Feb. 1; it was as much Stoll's absence as Ryan Smyth's departure that sent the Oilers into a late-season freefall --- The Predators' coaching staff, led by Barry Trotz, doesn't know for sure if they'll be back next season. The team holds an option on Trotz and his assistants, but will wait until after the playoffs to decide whether to exercise it or not. It could mean that the Predators may need to win at least a round, for the first time in franchise history, for Trotz to survive. One thing's for sure; if Trotz isn't back in Nashville, there'll be a stampede of teams at his door, offering him a coaching opportunity. The Predators have been on a steady upswing ever since their quality draft choices have come of age, but Trotz doesn't get nearly the credit he deserves for putting those young players - and especially those young defencemen - in the line-up and playing them big minutes, so they can get the necessary on-the-job training. Not every coach is willing to do that. This year, for example, the Predators relied extensively on Shea Weber, Ryan Suter and Dan Hamhuis as one half of their starting six; it wasn't so long ago (two years actually) that they were playing Jason York, Mark Eaton, Shane Hnidy, Jamie Allison and Brad Bombardir on their back end  --- Announced attendance for Detroit's playoff opener at Joe Louis Arena: 19,204. Capacity is 20,058. Announced attendance for New Jersey's' playoff home opener against Tampa: 14,495. Capacity is 19,040. The Devils did not sell out a single regular-season, not even for the Rangers or Flyers, their traditional hot tickets - and in the 48 hours leading up to the opener, they were offering discounts and promotional pricing in their upper bowl. According to the Newark Star-Ledger, those tickets had a face value of $60; they were offered for $45. Remind me again how much a comparable playoff ticket would cost at the Air Canada Centre.

AND FINALLY: The good news: There were 55 goals scored on the first two nights of the playoffs, for an average of just under seven per game. Not bad considering the playoffs are supposed to be all about defence and low-scoring battles. The bad news: 16 were scored on the power play; it was clear that the mandate - stick on body results in an automatic two minutes no matter how innocuous the play - is going to continue, at least for the first little while --- Erratum: Last week, I inadvertently made Davos champions of the Swiss league after they won the fifth game of their series with SC Bern. That was premature. Davos eventually did win the title, but it took them seven games and a 1-0 nailbiter in the final game to subdue coach John Van Boxmeer's visitors from Bern --- Canucks' coach Alain Vigneault had them cracking up between Games 1 and 2 of the Dallas series. After the teams played the sixth-longest overtime game in history, Vigneault was asked the next day to assess the marathon and couldn't. "I'm just at the end of Period 5," he said. "I've still got two more periods to get through." Bah boom. There was also this: Trevor Linden, the Canucks' ex-captain, turned 37 on the day of the opener. As the game went on, Vigneault reported: "A couple of guys said, 'let's get this over before Trevor turns 38.'"