SPORTS

Double overtime

The NHL’s season skates onto thin ice

JAMES DEACON October 24 1994
SPORTS

Double overtime

The NHL’s season skates onto thin ice

JAMES DEACON October 24 1994

Double overtime

SPORTS

The NHL’s season skates onto thin ice

JAMES DEACON

For fans of the National Hockey League, the last few weeks might have been funny had they not been so sad. Negotiations between the league and the players’ association over a new collective agreement skated onto thin ice, leaving business-suited combatants to trade taunts from the safety of their respective press conferences. Both sides trumpeted their resolve, but their demonstrations of hardline unanimity did little to move the negotiations forward. By week’s end, league commissioner Gary Bettman postponed the season’s start date for a second time—to as late as Nov. 1—and warned that there might be no season at all.

The message to diehards hoping to see a full NHL season was clear: don’t hold your breath.

All, however, is not lost. There is, after all, still minor-league and major-junior games, which have seen an upsurge in attendance and TV exposure during the NHL’s labour troubles. And the NHL has a contingency schedule that would allow its season to begin as late as early November without dropping any regular-season games or playoffs. That leaves the two sides with two weeks to work out their differences and still not lose any money. For optimists, the recent outbursts of incendiary rhetoric might be just the storm

before the calm. “There is a range -

of emotion that comes from any collective bargaining process, and the emotion we are seeing now is frustration,” said Gordon Kirke, who teaches sports law at Osgoode Hall in Toronto. “And that frustration might just push them to make a deal.”

On the other hand, there is considerable doubt that the players will ever agree to the owners’ bid to cap rookie salaries and severely tax team payrolls that exceed the league average. The players do not trust the financial picture that the owners have drawn, even though the association approved the financial reporting questionnaires before they were sent out to teams. The skeptics point, for instance, to the expansion Florida Panthers, who reportedly lost $4 million in 1993-1994, their first season. Yet the Panthers played to

95-per-cent capacity at the 14,500-seat Miami Arena and had the fourth-smallest payroll— $12.9 million—in the 26-team league. “There is a problem,” Edmonton-based player agent Rich Winter said of the owners’ financial woes, “but there is no doubt that it is not as bad as they would have us believe.”

Distrust is not exclusively a player-owner problem. Many owners privately blame some of their own colleagues for the steep upward spiral of player salaries over the past five years. Disapproving competitors complain that the St. Louis Blues, for example, overspent when they signed such free agents as Scott Stevens in 1990 and Brendan Shanahan in 1991. Last year, the ungainly Ottawa Senators gave top prospect Alexandre Daigle $12.25 million for five years be-

fore he had played an NHL game. That contract became the reference point for agents negotiating ever-richer rookie deals.

Still, the owners contend that it is the current system that is the enemy, and argue that lavish contracts are not just a sign of bad management. “In sports, we try to win,” said Ronald Corey, president of the Montreal Canadiens. “It leads us to make decisions that are sometimes mistakes.” That, said Quebec Nordiques president Marcel Aubut, is why the league cannot afford to continue under the terms of the current agreement—and why it needs some financial mechanism to help cash-strapped, small-market teams. “In another year, it will not be about big or small markets,” Aubut said. “It will then be about all markets.”

If there is hope for NHL hockey before New Year’s, it may well come through mediation. “I’m surprised that mediation has not been proposed,” said Winter. “Who knows, maybe we could get the negotiations going.” Certainly, there is common ground. Neither side wants to interrupt the game’s dynamic growth, and both agree that some combination of payroll taxes and revenue-sharing is needed to prop up small-market teams that cannot afford top players. “It is no accident that Winnipeg, Quebec and Edmonton have been at the bottom of the league competitively,” said NHL senior vice-president Jeffrey Pash. The players, however, do not want to shoulder the burden of struggling franchises alone. “Some cities have more trouble than others—we recognize that,” said Wayne Gretzky of the Los Angeles Kngs. “But the league has to recognize that, too. The Toronto Maple Leafs, the Detroit Red Wings, the New York Rangers—some of the responsibility of helping the poorer teams rests on their shoulders as well as on the players’ association.” Despite concerns about the current state of negotiations, Gretzky remains upbeat about the prospects for compromise. Eventually, he told Maclean’s, there will be a deal not only out of love of the game, but also out of self-interest. For one thing, the league’s new $209 million contract with Los Angeles-based Fox Broadcasting Co. takes effect in early 1995. And, said Gretzky, the new owners of the Anaheim Mighty Ducks and the Florida Panthers would not have forked over $67-million expansion fees unless they thought it was a good business deal. “Those people,” said the Great One, “are not in this league to lose money.” In that regard, at least, fans can take comfort in knowing that money talks.