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July 22, 2005 - Flyers put emphasis on fans

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Flyers put emphasis on fans
By WAYNE FISH

phillyBurbs.com

You think hockey fans really care who won or lost the labor war?
Nah. All they want to know is: What are you going to do to win us back after a dark winter without sticks and pucks?

So when the National Hockey League Players' Association finally voted to ratify the new collective bargaining agreement at a meeting in Toronto on Thursday, the biggest questions weren't about whether the players took one on the chin.

Rather, how can they help get the game back on its feet again and, as a result, maximize revenue to get the most out of the 54-percent share of the new financial system they're stuck with.

Flyers captain Keith Primeau was one of those who attempted to drive home that idea to his teammates.

Although he didn't have an official vote count, he said he believes the Flyers pretty much voted along the lines of the rest of the players - which was about 88 percent in favor of ratification.

A vote for the new CBA was basically one for going out and "growing the game" again.

If that means stopping and signing the extra autograph or three, before and after games, a la baseball in 1995, then so be it.

"I think if they (the players) paid attention, they understand that it's now a revenue-driven business," Primeau said. "I hope that point is driven home even more in the fall.

"When you're asked to do an interview, you do it. When you're asked to sign an autograph, you do it. A public appearance, you do it, to the best of your ability. Indirectly, it's going to affect your bottom line."

Make no mistake, hockey players were already some of the most accessible professional athletes on the planet.

But as baseball players such as Cal Ripken showed after the canceled 1994 World Series, it's a whole new game after you've burned some bridges with the people who essentially pay your salary.

"There was talk of players signing autographs before going out for warm-ups [before a game]," Primeau said. "Anything to get people excited about the game again. We have to think of ways to bring people back into the building."

No doubt, there is a sizable portion of players who aren't happy about accepting a salary cap, and some of them made their thoughts known at the union meeting.

A number of veterans are going to be taking pay cuts, others may be losing jobs. Primeau, who has the security of a new four-year contract signed just before the lockout, had to promote the concept of accepting a salary system tied into league revenue, something many players vowed never to do last fall.

"This definitely has a greater impact on older players," Primeau said. "The first stumbling block was convincing those players that this was the right thing for the game."

When a tentative agreement was reached about a week ago, several Flyers said the players shouldn't have regrets about losing a season to the negotiating process because it was necessary to build back trust. The players needed to have full financial disclosure that the game was indeed in financial trouble before they were willing to accept commissioner Gary Bettman's declarations of gloom and doom.

"There just wasn't a deal to be made before this point in time," Primeau said. "When you get to the nuts and bolts of it, it's taken eight weeks just to come up with a new draft on an agreement.

"As unfortunate as last year's events were, they became a necessary evil. You have to go out and try to explain that and pray the fans understand."

Primeau said the players did win some concessions. Pension benefits have improved, NHL players are now on the competition committee, free agency is much less restricted than in the past.

Primeau was joined in Toronto by Mike Knuble, John LeClair and Danny Markov. On conference call were player rep Robert Esche, Sean Burke, Donald Brashear, Sami Kapanen and Todd Fedoruk. Others received information through a secure Web site.

Those who had seen the CBA document on Wednesday night were able to explain the high points to the rest of the players.

"There was concern of tying salaries to revenue," Primeau pointed out in a discussion about how the new escrow fund will help in terms of salary adjustment if revenues go up or down.

"There was a fear about the first few years [of the CBA], how much more players could lose in salary. Beyond that, the players felt this had the potential to be a solid deal."

Unless they buy out some players, the Flyers could have some trouble getting under the $39-million salary cap. Currently, they have 13 players signed for a total of just over $33 million.

That figure does not include unsigned restricted free agents Patrick Sharp, Dennis Seidenberg, Esche, Simon Gagne, Kim Johnsson, Branko Radivojevic and Radovan Somik, as well as several touted prospects including Jeff Carter and Mike Richards.

Cutting loose, say, LeClair ($6.84 million after 24-percent rollback) and Tony Amonte ($4.49M) would free up more than $10 million.