- The Washington Times - Friday, April 12, 2002

Major League Baseball is dominating headlines with its labor problems, and it's not hard to understand why. Its off-the-field soap opera includes efforts to shutter franchises, charges of financial misstatements, dueling public relations campaigns and plenty of backroom drama.
The NHL's labor woes, however, are no less volatile, and actually hold more potential for growing truly ugly and resulting in a lengthy work stoppage.
A full two years before the existing labor deal between the players and management expires, team owners already are sounding the alarm for "cost certainty," a code phrase for a salary cap or cap-like mechanism. And players are steadily preparing to fight for the status quo, under which average salaries have doubled since 1995 to about $1.5million.
In the middle of it all is NHL commissioner Gary Bettman. Charged with being the sport's lead shepherd and promoter, Bettman must convince sponsors, broadcast partners and the public that hockey is growing and thriving. He has some powerful evidence to support that claim, as the NHL is set to record its fourth consecutive league attendance record, TV ratings have stabilized, and several once-troubled Canadian franchises are finding steadier footing.
But Bettman also is an employee of the team owners, and he is charged with being their lead voice in relations with the players. Sentiment is strong for some kind of salary cap because nearly two-thirds of the league's 30 teams, including the Washington Capitals, are believed or confirmed to be losing money. And unlike baseball, NHL revenues have not exponentially risen as well to match the salary growth.
The result is a profound uneasiness. An owners' lockout in 1994-95, centering on basically the same issues, canceled nearly half the season. This time both union and league sources say, the two sides already are squirreling away money for a much longer battle.
"People view this as a problem," Bettman said. "I take the opposing view, and am trying to convince people that we can solve this quickly and quietly. What is troubling to me is that people view this as a problem and not an opportunity. We have problems, to be sure, but we want to fix them."
In recent weeks, Bettman openly has angled to begin talks and lay out a new economic framework for the league as soon as possible. The NHL Players Association has rebuffed the overtures and is not obligated to negotiate a new deal before the current one expires. Publicly, the union has kept a low profile lately and has no intention of changing course.
"Our view is pretty simple: We believe in an open market," said Ted Saskin, NHLPA senior director of business affairs.
Privately, the union simply sees no incentive to honor Bettman's request to begin talking about salary controls any sooner than necessary.
"Why should we go to the table now, two years before a deal we think is clearly working expires?" a union source said. "That just doesn't make sense."
Meanwhile, team owners are beginning to take a wider view of their budgets and rosters, and are shying away from long-term commitments where possible. Caps owner Ted Leonsis declined to directly address the NHL labor situation, citing a Bud Selig-like gag order on team owners. But early this week, he said many clubs are eagerly awaiting a new framework in two years.
"The league is changing and there's a lot of teams looking toward 2004, and there's a lot of teams still losing money, as are we," Leonsis said. "In post-2004, the whole league will be different and payroll situations will be different."
Complicating the issue, as in baseball, is the wide divergence among clubs and their agendas. The Detroit Red Wings enjoy a rabidly devoted fan base, sell out every available seat each year, and have little problems supporting a payroll of $64million, tops in the league.
The Buffalo Sabres have a loyal fan base but a much smaller population and media base to draw from. The club cut team payroll to $29million this season but still cannot turn a profit. And the Canadian clubs, while doing better as a group than two years ago, still cannot compete in the long term with U.S. clubs and won't until the league establishes some sense of economic balance.
The two sides also have mirrored baseball by granting public votes of confidence for their leaders. Bettman has signed a contract extension through the 2007-08 season. NHLPA executive Bob Goodenow is signed through the same season, at an annual salary between $2.5million and $3million that trumps those of union leaders in the other major team sports.
In baseball, the talk of a work stoppage carries a tone of finality because both sides know that many fans will abandon the game permanently if play ceases again. Bettman shares no such view for hockey if a stoppage makes progress toward competitive and economic parity.
"Fans will tolerate labor disharmony if a league has issues and fixes them," Bettman said. "If you come through to the other side, fans will understand. Baseball, for example, has a long track record of labor disharmony and no meaningful change resulting from it."

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