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September 15, 2004 - Closed for business

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Wednesday, September 15, 2004

So far, NHL owners and players have found no common ground

Courier-Post Staff

For the second time in 10 years, the National Hockey League is staring at a work stoppage that threatens to wipe out the entire 2004-05 season.

If a new Collective Bargaining Agreement cannot be hammered out between the league's owners and its players' union by midnight tonight the league will shut its doors indefinitely.

And, unlike 1994, when the NHL resumed play in January for an abbreviated 48-game schedule, there is little optimism hockey will be played at all this season.

"Nobody's optimistic at all about it getting done any time soon," Flyers left wing John LeClair said. "It doesn't seem like they've even established a base to start negotiating."

The road block in talks between NHL Commissioner Gary Bettman and NHL Players Association Executive Director Bob Goodenow begins and ends with a salary cap. Bettman has proposed a $30 million cap, which is less than half of the league-high $77 million payroll with which the Detroit Red Wings entered last season.

Goodenow has proposed a five percent rollback on salaries and a luxury tax system that would force owners to curb their own spending.

Apparently, both sides are using the 2004-05 season as leverage.

"Both sides believe their best bargaining position is beyond the 11th hour," Flyers captain Keith Primeau said. "And when the owners are adamant about wanting a salary cap and the level they want it, there's really not much to discuss."
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The crux of the players' frustration with Bettman is his determination that 75 percent of the league's revenue goes directly to players' salaries, and that the league lost a total of $273 million during the 2002-03 season.

"Do you honestly believe that report?" LeClair said of the NHL's audit of its books. "Let's be forthright so we can get things done.

"I don't think anybody doubts teams are losing money. I think guys can do the math on which teams are losing money. But the extent that some of these other teams are claiming is hard to believe."

In the past two seasons, two NHL teams - the Ottawa Senators and Buffalo Sabres - filed for bankruptcy and the Pittsburgh Penguins were saved only because their greatest player, Hall of Famer Mario Lemieux, stepped in as an owner.

Primeau and LeClair, who earned a combined $14 million last season, said players can sympathize with the owners' need to control salaries but believe there is a way of securing fiscal stability without a salary cap.

"We understand where salaries have gone in the past 10 years (from an average of $572,000 in 1994 to $1.8 million last season)," Primeau said, "and we're trying to make as many concessions as we can to close that gap."

In addition to their five percent rollback, the players are willing to agree to a luxury tax that aids some of the league's financially distressed teams. For example, with a payroll ceiling of $35 million, a team would be taxed 33 cents for every dollar spent between $35 million and $45 million; 66 cents on every dollar spent between $45 million and $50 million and 100 percent on every dollar spent over $50 million.

That would greatly inhibit a team like the Flyers, who currently have a $66 million payroll, from signing high-priced free agents.

"You have to allow owners that want to win, like Mr. (Ed) Snider, to be able to go the extra step for their fans by getting a player," LeClair said. "You can't take that away from these guys."

LeClair believes the owners need to shoulder some of the blame for their own exorbitant spending and that the players should not be forced to come up with a plan to save a league that many believe has too many teams.

In the past 12 years, the NHL has expanded from 21 teams to 30, accepting $50 million expansion fees for each of those new entries. The result has been a watered down product in cities like Winston-Salem, N.C. (Carolina Hurricanes), Atlanta and Columbus, where hockey interest is minimal.

"It's the same teams losing money every single year and the league is always crying they're going to go bankrupt," LeClair said. "But (the owners) cashed their $50 million expansion fees.

"It's all about common sense and who's running a good business. I'm not claiming I can do it any better, but people in those positions have to be able to maintain their budgets."

In LeClair's opinion, the league's owners want a "do-over" with a new agreement, saying they want all of their sins of the past wiped clean with a radically restructured CBA. He said by doing that the owners are grossly underestimating the players' resolve.

Two years ago, with the threat of a long lockout on the horizon, the NHLPA asked its players to submit three weeks of paychecks into a lockout fund. LeClair said players will be eligible to draw from that fund once the doors of their practice facilities are locked.

NHL teams are believed to have taken similar precautions by setting aside a $10 million fund in the event of a lockout.

LeClair said he believes the battle lines in this labor war are as clear as they are deep.

"It's one of those things where nobody's going to blink first," LeClair said. "They're not going to put their bottom line out now. They can wait until they get what they want."

In the end, LeClair and Primeau agree that the fans - not the players or owners - will be most affected by a lockout.

"I think if we sit out a year it's going to take a long time for this sport to come back in the U.S.," LeClair said. "Baseball had the Sosa-McGwire (home run chase in 1998) that pulled everybody back. Hockey's got more of a cult following, so it might be tough."

Primeau said all of the momentum the Flyers built with last spring's playoff run would evaporate if a labor dispute erases this season.

"We've really begun to generate some real excitement about our hockey club again and this would put us back to where we were a year or two ago," Primeau said. "I hope it doesn't, but I don't have a good feeling."