- The Washington Times - Friday, October 4, 2002

NHL commissioner Gary Bettman said yesterday the players' union's refusal to begin talking about a new labor deal will only allow "the [leagues] problems to continue and the solutions to get harder." But he acknowledged he has no legal ability to force the players to the bargaining table before June 2004.

For the past year, Bettman has actively and publicly sought to begin formal labor negotiations as soon as possible and well before the current deal expires following the 2003-04 season. Despite a significant growth in the popularity of hockey in recent years, more than half of the league's teams are confirmed or believed to be unprofitable, revenue disparity among teams has grown significantly and average salaries by nearly every measure have grown beyond many teams' ability to generate additional revenue.

Union leader Bob Goodenow, however, has steadfastly refused Bettman's overtures unless management presents something of interest to the players.

"The union has made it abundantly clear that they like the status quo," Bettman said in a conference call with reporters. "They don't even want to talk about collective bargaining unless it's a proposal that they are interested in. But they are interested in maintaining the status quo, which I think we all know needs to be changed."

Bettman's continued impasse on the labor front highlights a rather paradoxical situation for the NHL as the league nears the beginning of the 2002-03 season. On a positive front, the league has posted four consecutive attendance records, and slightly improved season-ticket sales leaguewide suggest that another is possible. TV ratings on ABC improved 29 percent last year, and merchandise sales remain strong relative to the lagging economy, particularly due to the NHL's highly successful third jersey program.

Conversely, ratings on ESPN and ESPN2 fell last year, and overall national broadcast exposure will drop 30 percent this season, extending an ongoing trend. And with baseball having secured labor peace through 2006, the NHL is now the center of fan apprehension about a work stoppage.

"There's nothing we can do about [this] other than make sure we have two great seasons for the 2003-04 season and for the 2002-03 season, and that's where we'll focus our attention unless and until the union changes its mind," Bettman said.

Union officials were not available for comment yesterday, but Goodenow has long contended that hockey's troubled economics stem from a variety of conditions not related to player payrolls.

In other topics addressed by Bettman yesterday:

•Thanks largely to new hurry-up rules for faceoffs and line changes, the average preseason game this year has lasted two hours, 17 minutes, a 10 percent improvement from last year's full-season average of 2 hours, 33 minutes.

"While I think we might anticipate the possibility of a slight increase once the regular season begins, the results speak for themselves," Bettman said. "There's been more skating and less standing around."

•Bettman also gave high marks to the removal of seamless protective glass systems in NHL arenas, and a return of more traditional Plexiglas-based systems while study continues on the seamless systems. The seamless systems had fallen out of favor because of their lack of give and propensity to cause injury.

"In the arenas that have changed back [already] to the plexi the boards and glass really now have a lot of give," Bettman said. "They wiggle. They make a lot of noise when players get hit into the boards, and we know that the fans really enjoy that."

•No significant movement has been made recently on bids for the Buffalo Sabres, a franchise now operated by the league and for sale. Mark Hamister, operator of the Arena Football League Buffalo Destroyers, has submitted a bid, but no other offers have surfaced. A meeting with another prospective owner, however, is set for next week. Season ticket sales, slowed by the ownership uncertainty, stand at about 7,500, far below a goal of 12,000.

"Nobody ever bought a ticket to watch an owner," Bettman said. "I do remain disappointed in the season ticket sales, but I am hoping [a] new [sales] effort will help me overcome my disappointment, and enable the franchise to get the support that we believe is there and that it needs. All I can do is ask, plead, beg and suggest fans come out."

•The All-Star Game will revert to an East vs. West format after using a North America vs. the World format for five years. The Florida Panthers will play host to this season's game.

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