- The Washington Times - Tuesday, May 25, 2004

TAMPA, Fla. — NHL commissioner Gary Bettman met with Players Association executive director Bob Goodenow for three-plus hours here yesterday but reported no progress on the league’s labor situation with the expiration of the collective bargaining agreement less than four months away.

“I believe any dialogue is good dialogue, so although the meeting didn’t result in any new substantive development, I would characterize it as good dialogue,” said Bettman, who has yet to schedule his next meeting with Goodenow. “It was another step in the process, and it’s a process that I remain hopeful will lead to a new collective bargaining agreement without disruption of the 2004-2005 schedule.

“Once the union agrees to become partners, there are lots of way to [allocate revenues fairly], but we’re not anywhere near that stage,” Bettman continued. “There’s no doubt that we understand each other’s position clearly. We believe that our problems are indisputable and that we have proposed the only effective way to get us healthy. The union has a different viewpoint.”

Bettman called the Levitt report a broken model. The report, a financial analysis of the league by former U.S. Securities and Exchange Commission chairman Arthur Levitt, showed 19 of the 30 teams are losing money and the NHL itself is losing roughly $270million. Meanwhile, the report said, the players receive 75percent of the $2billion gross revenues at an average salary of $1.9million.

“It’s nice that the union talks about a free market, but there’s no such thing,” Bettman said. “There are qualifying offers. There’s an entry-level system. The market gets defined in collective bargaining. At some point we’re going to need to come to agreement on a system that both sides hopefully can live with. We can’t keep going on this way. The owners are not prepared to keep sustaining these losses and to have the type of economic disparities that we have. It doesn’t matter how we got here; the system doesn’t work.

“I don’t see how we go forward without getting to the threshold issue,” he added. “Our view isn’t based on ideology or theory. It’s based on the hard economic reality of where we find ourselves. If I was getting 75percent of the gross, I’d like keep what I had, but that’s not realistic. I don’t doubt the players’ resolve, but no one should doubt the owners’ resolve. If this is a test to see if the owners really mean it, it’s a shame.”

Despite the Levitt-based projection that a $31million salary cap is what makes economic sense for the NHL, Bettman didn’t make too much of two small-market teams meeting in the finals for the first time since 1991, when Pittsburgh beat Minnesota.

“It’s nice to see for a change, but every [recent] Stanley Cup has been won by a team with a top 10 payroll,” Bettman said. “You get to see a small-market team shoot the moon on a one-shot basis, but the ability of [such] a team to sustain itself on any rational economic basis is simply not there. What’s happening this year doesn’t mean there aren’t competitive problems, and it certainly doesn’t mean that there isn’t an economic problem.”

While saying “we all tend to get wrapped up in the crisis of the moment,” Bettman did manage to point out some positives for the league. He noted that all but four of the 86-plus playoff games will be sellouts and that the average attendance will be approximately 19,000. Bettman said he was especially pleased all of the games in the finals will start at 8p.m. so fans of all ages and time zones will be able to watch.

Bettman also said the NHL will negotiate a new transfer agreement only with the International Ice Hockey Federation. There won’t be a separate deal with the Russian Ice Hockey Federation despite discontent with the payments received by Russian teams when their players are sent to North America. Bettman also is optimistic about most of the NHL rules changes proposed in February, although the goal line might be adjusted two feet instead of three.

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