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December 25, 2004 - Primeau's contract sets inadvertent salary cap

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Primeau's contract sets inadvertent salary cap

Knight Ridder Newspapers

(KRT) - Don't expect Flyers center Keith Primeau to become a poster boy for the NHL Players' Association any time soon.

It has nothing to do with his stance on the lockout. Primeau is pro-union and vocal with teammates on supporting the players' association.

He has a sense of balance and fairness over money that, frankly, some players in the league lack.

No, the reason he is at quiet odds with the union is because of his contract, the four-year, $17 million accord he signed over the summer.

Primeau inadvertently set a salary cap for the Flyers for the next collective-bargaining agreement - in whatever year that might be.

The Flyers' long-range plans are to shed John LeClair's $9 million salary, Tony Amonte's $5.8 million, and perhaps even Jeremy Roenick's $7.5 million.

If the season began in a month or so, at least two of those players wouldn't be here. And within a year, Primeau's $4.5 million salary would become the bar, so to speak, for the Flyers.

Primeau was the most valuable two-way player on the club last season, so it was easy for general manager Bob Clarke to tell Jay Grossman, who represents Alexei Zhamnov, that his client was not entitled to be paid more in free agency than Primeau.

Why? Because the Flyers' captain was the best player among the club's free agents.

You can't be paid above the best player, can you? And certainly not in the "new" world the NHL is about to enter.

Therein lies the problem. In the union's eyes, Primeau signed for less than market value. (He signed for less than he made last season, when he received $5 million.) Given the Flyers' long-term payroll strategy, his salary became the club's threshold for a salary cap, if you will.

"They were unhappy with me," Primeau said of the union's leaders. "They never verbalized it to me personally.

"Anyone who looks at my career and track record, they know I don't really put much stock into what other people think. I do what is best for me. It may feel wrong to someone else, but as long as it feels right to me, then I usually follow my instincts."

The union declined to comment, saying it never speaks about individual contracts. Though it would like every player to sign with fellow players in mind, the only obligation Primeau has is to himself. If he signs for below market value, that's his choice.

Primeau acknowledged that it never occurred to him last summer that by signing before the next collective-bargaining agreement was reached, he might create a cap for the Flyers.

"I still don't look at it in that regard," he said. "I am captain of a hockey club, but I am also 33 going on 34 and scored only seven goals last season.

"I might have had a tremendous playoff, but I don't want to be rewarded for having a good two-month stretch. ... It's ludicrous for me to think that just because I had a great playoff, I should have held out for $6 million."

That essentially is what the union would have preferred. Primeau said the union's executive director, Bob Goodenow, spoke to Primeau's agent, Don Reynolds, and voiced concerns about the deal before Primeau signed.

"When the players' association found out what I would sign for, they didn't want me to sign the contract," Primeau said. "I told my agent there were a lot of factors going into it, more than a dollar figure."

The bottom line is that Primeau is satisfied, even if he didn't do right by his union. He said that none of his teammates had expressed animosity and that they seemed relieved that he didn't test free agency.

Still, with the league and union in a lockout over a salary cap, Primeau's deal represents the threshold on the Flyers' salaries in the years ahead.

Bet on it.

The fans' viewpoint. Allan, who works for American Airlines, wrote this week from his home in Tulsa, Okla. He said: "Most of the articles I've read are from the owners' or players' standpoint. How about from the fans' standpoint? Without us, there would be no multimillion-dollar players or owners. Give me a break, guys. I really don't care about the problems of how much each rich and spoiled person in these organizations makes! I work for American Airlines at our maintenance base here in Tulsa, and like all airline employees had to take a "major pay cut and benefit cut to possibly stay in business, and that's even with a union representing my interests. Times are a-changing and if both sides don't change, they are going to be without a job."

Next powwow. The league's Board of Governors will meet Jan. 14. It's entirely possible that commissioner Gary Bettman will get the owners' OK to cancel the 2004-05 season because of the lockout. But the safer play - in case the league goes to court next fall to implement its own deal unilaterally - would be to allow the lockout to drag on and have the season expire on its own.

Loose pucks. Sen. John McCain (R., Ariz.) agreed to a lengthy chat with last week and was asked whether Congress might get involved in the lockout. McCain's response: "I don't think there's anything that the federal government or somebody like me can do except maybe a little friendly persuasion. This is a labor-management dispute, and for government officials to interfere in labor-management disputes, there has to be some transcendent national interest."

Primeau on the salary cap and cost certainty: "Wouldn't we all love to have businesses that had cost certainty? ... I continue to hold out hope because I believe deep down inside both sides realize we can't miss an entire season. But I'm just not sure. ... The worst part is, they can drag this out two years and maybe get their $36 million salary cap, but they will have a hard time generating the revenues they missed and still pay for that cap."

The last time the Stanley Cup wasn't awarded was in 1919, when the Montreal-Seattle Finals were canceled because of the Spanish flu. ... Gary Bettman is on the verge of becoming the first commissioner in the modern era of sports to see an entire season canceled. Legend has it that the Roman emperor Caligula canceled the "ludi circenses (circus games) in 38 A.D. after the Senate locked out the gladiators in a dispute over the gold they would be paid to take on the lions at the Colosseum.