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CLIMATE IS RIGHT FOR NHL, CANES TO LURE MORE FANS
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CLIMATE IS RIGHT FOR NHL, CANES TO LURE MORE FANS

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The Carolina Hurricanes, Greensboro's only major-league weather system, practiced inside the 11,500-capacity coliseum barely breaking a sweat. The Hurricanes are leaner this season, having found something to do in the North Carolina off-season other than eating North Carolina barbecue.

``Our team body fat is down by three or four percent overall,' coach Paul Maurice said after the Canes' second workout. ``I guess that's not much to put in the paper. Organizationally, I think we might have gained some. There's an argument that some's been gained between the ears.'Though the Canes aren't gaining weight, the league is. Having studied itself thoroughly since the age of the Original Six, the NHL has decided the public is cooling on the product. The league added a new franchise this season, one that will call Nashville home, and will grow by three more markets by the year 2000. By then, the NHL hopes to have a handle on the forces of change that have brought the league to a key crossroads.

While attendance hovers around 90 percent league-wide, television ratings fall precipitously. The league will address this problem by addressing the game's most time-honored pillars of controversy: scoring and violence.

Scoring is falling in the NHL, a trend sharpened by more athletic players and better goaltenders. And with bigger and faster players skimming across frozen ponds, concussions are on the rise. Head injuries cost the game two of its most exciting players last year - Anaheim's Paul Kariya and Philadelphia's Eric Lindros. While Lindros played through his headaches, Kariya missed the final 28 games of the season. Toronto's Nick Kypreos missed the entire season and Florida's Rob Niedermayer missed 25 games.

The league has hired former player and coach Colin Campbell to police the game, giving him wide-ranging powers to do what his predecessor, Brian Burke, would not do - end gratuitous violence. Campbell, who once piled up 196 penalty minutes in one season in Edmonton, has the power to do whatever it takes to rid the game of goons.

To rid the game of shutouts, the league will add a referee, shrink the size of the crease in front of the goal, enlarge the area behind the goals by two feet, squeeze the neutral zone by four and ban goalies from wearing tarps instead of jerseys. The hope is that scoring will rise from last year's 5.28 goals per game (the lowest in 42 years) and convince people in Nashville and Greensboro that hockey is a real sport.

The new Predators have not taken Music City by storm, and the team's new owners are already showing signs of Cane-like promoting. Nashville opened training camp in its new 17,200-seat arena on Sunday, the same day the NFL Oilers opened their first season in Nashville. While the Oilers played before a sellout crowd, about 200 people watched the Predators first-ever practice.

Here in Greensboro, the plan to downsize the largest coliseum in North Carolina has not been without negative feedback, most pointedly from the the coliseum itself, which now stands to lose money in parking fees and prestige from turning away fans from an arena that can hold almost 10,000 more people than the Hurricanes plan to invite this year.

``Only time will tell if it's a good idea,' general manager Jim Rutherford said earlier this week.

Only time will tell if the leaner Hurricanes can gain on an expanding league in the coming years. The off-season acquisition of Ron Francis has raised expectations of more scoring from the middle and extra games at the end of the regular season.

``There's nothing worse than coming into a building knowing that something magical has to happen to give you a chance to win,' Maurice said.

The franchise has produced little magic in the past six seasons, one of the longest non-playoff skids in league history. The league itself has produced little magic in recent years, but with the NBA threatening to lock out a season, the NHL is at a unique place in its long history.

The climate is changing again, and the league hopes to drag Carolina and the coming expansion attractions into a new millennium. The heat outside the lean meat locker on Lee Street remains in stark contrast to the frozen contents inside. The Canes and the league plan to turn up the temperature this year in hopes of warming a game gone cold.

Ed Hardin's column appears Sunday, Wednesday and Friday. He can be reached at (336) 373-7069.

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