ST. PAUL -- When the Wild start play in October 2000, Minnesotans who haven't paid much attention to the NHL since the North Stars moved to Dallas in 1993 will find the league has changed -- a lot.
The Wild and the Columbus Blue Jackets will be the third and fourth expansion teams to start play since 1998. The Nashville Predators started in 1998 and the Atlanta Thrashers opened this season.
The league will have 30 teams, including some brand new ones and a handful that relocated in the 1990s.
The Mighty Ducks of Anaheim and Florida Panthers joined the NHL in 1993. The Quebec Nordiques became the Colorado Avalanche in 1995. The Hartford Whalers moved to North Carolina in 1997 and became the Hurricanes. The Winnipeg Jets flirted with a move to the Twin Cities, but landed in Phoenix in 1996, renamed the Coyotes.
Despite the growth, most league observers don't think the quality of play in the NHL has dropped as much as it has in other sports. That's because the NHL's pool of potential players is larger than ever, with more European and American players.
''I think the product is better today than it was seven years ago,'' said Doug Risebrough, Wild general manager.
The power teams have also changed. The Pittsburgh Penguins, who won two straight Stanley Cups in 1991 and 1992, are languishing in mediocrity. The Montreal Canadiens, who won the Cup in 1993, are in last place in the Northeast Division, in the midst of what could be a long rebuilding process.
The Dallas Stars won the franchise's first Stanley Cup last season, beating the Buffalo Sabres, four games to two.
After the 1992-93 season, Mario Lemieux of the Pittsburgh Penguins won the scoring title. It was the next-to-last season of a 14-year run in which either Lemieux or Wayne Gretzky led the league in scoring.
Lemieux now heads a group that owns the Penguins, while Gretzky left the game last year after finishing his career with the New York Rangers. Pittsburgh's Jaromir Jagr, Phoenix's Jeremy Roenick and San Jose's Owen Nolan are the top scorers so far this season.
But the game is still watchable and entertaining, despite the departure of the Great One.
''I don't think there are too many players in the league now where people say I've got to watch this player, but most of the time they say they've got to watch the New York Rangers, or the team,'' said Don Waddell, general manager of the Atlanta Thrashers.
Financially, most fans will take a much bigger hit in 2000 than in 1993.
The average NHL ticket this season costs $45.70, according to Team Marketing Report. In 1993, the highest price for North Stars tickets at the Met Center in Bloomington was $31.50 -- except for the ring around the ice, which was $100 -- and the cheapest seats were $9.50.
Wild tickets range from $10 to $64 for the team's 18,600-seat arena.
Players are also making more money. According to the NHL Players Association, the average salary in 1992-93 was $467,000. Last season's average salary was $1.3 million.
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