- The Washington Times - Wednesday, May 8, 2002

NHL hockey in the 21st century, much like baseball, has largely been a big-dollar, American-only enterprise. Aside from the plucky New Jersey Devils, Stanley Cup glory has mandated the fuel of U.S. dollars and domestic corporate might.
Until now, that is. Three Canadian clubs are still alive in the 2002 NHL playoffs economically struggling Ottawa and Montreal, and nationally beloved Toronto and at least one club is guaranteed to reach the Eastern Conference finals.
The collective showing from the Great White North has only been matched once in the last eight years, and when considering Ottawa's $29 million player payroll is just 45 percent of that for league power Detroit, it's a certifiable feel-good story.
But will the latest Canadian uprising do anything to correct the financial instability of the six NHL clubs north of the border, or stir the passions of TV viewers? Over the last decade, Canada has lost two teams to the greener economic pastures of America. Several more have made relocation overtures to the south. And thanks primarily to a Canadian dollar worth only 64 U.S. cents, the remaining clubs continue to operate at a huge fiscal disadvantage to their American competitors.
Meanwhile, NHL playoff hockey remains a tough sell for mainstream U.S. TV viewers. Playoff ratings sunk to a record low last year, and the prospect of small-market Ottawa reaching the Stanley Cup finals this year has the TV industry particularly worried. Ottawa, Canada's sixth largest TV market, would rank only 53rd among U.S. markets between Jacksonville, Fla., and Scranton/Wilkes-Barre, Pa.
The Senators currently lead Toronto two games to one in their Eastern Conference semifinal series.
"This is basic straight-ahead stuff. Any professional sport these days with a multi-game playoff series is going to do better when major markets, top-five kinds of markets, are involved," said Bill Carroll, vice president of programming for Katz Television Group, which advises stations on programming and advertising. "Hockey interest tends to be rather concentrated in markets where there are franchises, and certainly concentrated in major markets."
Canada's best chance for NHL economic stability came in January 2000 when then-federal Minister of Industry John Manley announced a $14 million (U.S.) aid program designed to help the six clubs, as each take in revenues in Canadian dollars but pay out expenses in much stronger American dollars. Massive citizen outcry against the program, however, forced Manley to pull the offer off the table just three days later. Manley's turnabout also voided provincial and local aid packages tied to the national money.
Since then, the Canadian federal government has left the issue to the individual provinces and the NHL. The league operates a currency equalization program in which well-operating but particularly needy Canadian clubs can receive up to $5 million (U.S.) per year in aid. Ottawa, Edmonton and Calgary each qualify for the assistance.
The province of Alberta also has started a lottery program in which part of the proceeds go to the Oilers and Flames. Each team receives about $1.75 million (U.S.) a year.
The efforts, while helpful, still have not assured Canada will keep a meaningful place in its beloved sport. Ottawa owner Rod Bryden continues to search unsuccessfully to find new equity partners for his money-losing club. Montreal and Vancouver also bleed millions in red ink. Calgary, almost completely unable to sign or retain top talent, has not reached the second round of the playoffs since its Stanley Cup title in 1989. Only Toronto, with its own TV network and a truly national fan base, is on solid financial footing.
"After John Manley did his 180 [degree turn], nothing surprises me about government's lack of understanding about the importance of hockey in this country and the level to which we are taxed," said Senators president Roy Mlakar. "To use the words of [Vancouver Canucks president] Brian Burke, it may take another casualty here to get that understanding. The difference in how United States governments treat professional sports and how Canada does up here is just staggering."
Industry Canada, the federal agency involved in the hockey matter, has no plans to review any new NHL aid proposals, said department spokeswoman Akim Isabelle-Thibouthot.
The clubs have continued to lobby for additional help. But even if the Canadian federal government or the other provinces never aid the NHL clubs there, this spring's shows of success can do no harm, Mlakar said.
"We can only control what we can control. Rod Bryden is still out there battling, trying to find a partner, and get some tax relief from the various levels of government," he said. "But what we know we have to do is continue to go out and run a responsible franchise. People are sick of sky-high ticket prices, sky-high salaries and teams that don't care about their fans. We try to operate the Senators in a very different way. We're a bunch of lunchpail guys, we've built through the draft, we don't pay retirement salaries, and I think people recognize that.
"But the bottom line is that there's no substitute for success. You can certainly bet we're trying to maximize this opportunity," he said.
ESPN, the lead network airing NHL playoff games, is seeking to do the same. Storylines featuring red-hot Ottawa goalie Patrick Lalime, Montreal forward and cancer survivor Saku Koivu and the prospect of Colorado goalie Patrick Roy facing his former team, the Canadiens, are getting significant play.
"We're optimistic [about potential ratings], particularly given the action so far on the ice," said ESPN spokeswoman Diane Lamb. "We will promote and cover the most compelling storylines, regardless of whether the teams left are based in the U.S. or Canada."
First-round playoff viewership on ESPN this season was down 1 percent, and up 11 percent on ESPN2.


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