- The Washington Times - Friday, June 7, 2002

DETROIT NHL commissioner Gary Bettman warned yesterday in his strongest language yet that the league is on the path to increased financial instability if methods aren't undertaken quickly to rein in out-of-control spending.

Although the message was directed primarily at the NHL Players Association, whose contract with the league expires Sept.15, 2004, it also was clearly a message for owners some of whom, Bettman charged, spend beyond their means.

"It is clear to everyone that no matter how much we have increased the exposure for the game, no matter how much we have increased and grown the revenues, no matter how much the league has grown, the existing economic system needs to be changed, and the sooner we do that, the better," Bettman said.

There have been no talks between the sides on a new contract; in fact, Bob Goodenow, executive director of the NHLPA, said he would be willing to discuss an extension of the current contract but not a new one.

The start of the 1994-95 season was delayed more than 100 days when the owners locked out the players, a work stoppage that ended only when the current agreement was reached after midnight in a Chinese restaurant in New York City where Bettman and Goodenow were the only customers. A 48-game season followed.

There is widespread speculation that a new lockout or strike would eliminate the entire 2004-05 season.

In the past nine years, Bettman said, the average player salary has gone from $400,000 to about $1.5million, and while league revenues have grown, he maintained they have not kept pace with the rapid salary escalation.

"I believe we need cost certainty," the commissioner said, using the term "salary cap" as one example. "We need to have cost predictability, cost certainty and it needs to be in line with our revenues. There's no question about that in my mind."

Bettman used the Carolina Hurricanes as an example of what can be done without cracking the top five in salary spending.

"What is fascinating about Carolina [is that] they have got about a $33million payroll," he said. "The good news is, in our sport there isn't the direct correlation between what a team spends and success. In fact, a number of our high-payroll teams the Rangers, Dallas and Washington to name three didn't make the playoffs. [And] the Flyers got eliminated in the first round. High-spending teams create an inflationary environment which puts severe economic pressure on some of the lesser endowed teams."

Other major items addressed by Bettman:

•Speeding up play, such as was done during the Salt Lake Games. "We want to get the puck dropped faster without sacrificing the integrity of faceoffs we will have something to put into play for next season."

•Obstruction. He said the league wanted to continue working on ways to halt obstruction "so that players with the highest skill levels will operate in conditions that let them display it." He also said the league is working on ways to open up forechecking.

•Officiating. Bettman noted there had been criticism, "a lot of it unfair." He said officials are "doing an excellent job, [but] it doesn't mean they don't need to improve, that they can't improve." He said the league was committed to the two-man refereeing system.

•Buffalo. The commissioner said the league was monitoring the situation in Buffalo closely, trying to determine "with exact certainty the positions of both the Rigas [family] and Adelphia [Communications Corp.]," which operate the Sabres and the rink they play in. Both parties are thought to be in financial trouble; Bettman said the NHL was committed to keeping Buffalo in the league.

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