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September 16, 2004 - Suddenly, Flyers have little to do

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Suddenly, Flyers have little to do

Thursday, September 16, 2004

As contract with players expires, NHL owners announce lockout

CHUCK GORMLEY
Courier-Post Staff
VOORHEES

Eric Desjardins, Keith Primeau, John LeClair and Tony Amonte of the Flyers said they'll spend quality time with their families.

Teammates Joni Pitkanen, Patrick Sharp and Dennis Seidenberg will spend quality time - at a quality price - playing for the Philadelphia Phantoms.

With the National Hockey League now in official lockdown mode - its Collective Bargaining Agreement expired at midnight Wednesday - the world's best hockey players now find themselves looking for ways to occupy their time.

"It is my somber duty to report that at today's meeting, the NHL Board of Governors unanimously reconfirmed that NHL teams will not play at the expiration of the CBA until we have a new system which fixes the economic problems facing our game," NHL Commissioner Gary Bettman announced Wednesday in New York.

Stating that 20 of the NHL's 30 teams lost a total of $340 million last season, Bettman said the league will remain suspended until the players' union accepts some form of cost certainty that would reduce the average player salary from $1.8 million to $1.3 million.

"The union is trying to win a fight, hoping the owners will give up," Bettman said. "That will turn out to be a terrible error in judgment. It is unforgivable that the union could see this bleak day approaching and not lift a finger."

According to Bettman, the players' union, headed by Bob Goodenow, flatly rejected six different proposals by the league's owners, equating their models of revenue sharing to a form of salary cap.

"We have to get to the point where the owners are willing to negotiate and not try to force a $31 million salary cap down our throats," said Primeau, who will forfeit $4.5 million in salary if the league shuts down for the entire 2004-05 season.
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Flyers Chairman Ed Snider said the players are being misinformed and that revenue sharing is not the same as a salary cap.

"We're willing to guarantee a percentage of all revenues," Snider said. "That way, if the league is prospering, the players are prospering."

Snider said he has never seen the league's Board of Governors in a stronger position, saying Bettman has done "a phenomenal job getting all of us together."

Bettman reconfirmed that 75 percent of the league's revenue goes toward player salaries and that he's offered the union a revenue-sharing plan in which the players would receive 53 percent of team revenues. That formula, which he said can be negotiated, would allow all 30 teams to turn a profit and eliminate the need for franchises to be relocated.

Bettman said six NHL teams combined for $170 million in losses last season, but reiterated that a smaller NHL does not necessarily mean a healthier one.

"If we play under a system that works, all 30 franchises can be successful where they are located," Bettman said emphatically. "I am confident of that."

The effect a long work stoppage will have on the NHL's declining fan base remains to be seen. With average payrolls of $44 million, teams have been forced to raise ticket prices consistently over the past 10 years.

Bettman said a system that reduces player salaries by about 25 percent should also result in lower ticket prices, which he thinks could help fuel interest in the game once it returns.

Primeau said that if the entire season is lost, trying to recover fans will be a difficult task.

"Anytime there's a labor dispute, it affects the market," he said. "For a sport trying to gain notoriety and respect, this is definitely a way to put it back on its heels."

Desjardins said he believes fans will come back in markets such as Philadelphia, New York, Detroit and Toronto, but wonders how a long layoff might affect small-market teams that already struggle for fans.

"It's a chance we took in 1994, and we recovered pretty quick," Desjardins said. "But I think it's going to be different this time around."

For players such as Pitkanen, Sharp and Seidenberg, the NHL lockout affects their pay but not their ability to work. Because they are within the first three years of their contracts, they are eligible to play in the American Hockey League and will open training camp Sept. 26 with the Phantoms.

But for the veterans, preparations have been made for a very long layoff.

"It kinda stinks," Amonte said, "packing up and moving out of here, trying to find a new place to work out and keep in shape. But we can't say they haven't prepared us. We're prepared for the worst."