- The Washington Times - Friday, November 8, 2002

NHL Commissioner Gary Bettman yesterday said without long-term, systemic economic change to the league's financial model, "everything is in jeopardy."

Bettman, in town to attend the Detroit Red Wings' Stanley Cup ceremony today at the White House, sounded his continued frustration with the lack of progress in labor negotiations with the NHL Players Association. The current labor deal expires after the 2003-04 season, but Bettman and team owners already have begun seeking change. A proposal was sent to union offices recently, but was promptly rejected.

"There has been a proposal. We would like to negotiate. But nothing has come of it," Bettman said. "All the union is interested in is the status quo, and the status quo no longer works. We owe it to our game and to our fans to have 30 healthy franchises in the cities they currently play. I remain confident that ultimately we can create a system that allows that to happen."

Bettman declined to identify specific elements in that league proposal, but it is believed to have called for significant restraints on player salaries and measures to improve economic parity among teams. The NHL currently has no limits on either individual player salaries or overall team payrolls. Since 1991, average player salaries have soared 505 percent from $271,000 to $1.64million, and in the race to keep up with the league's big spenders, more than half of NHL teams are believed or confirmed to be losing money.

The comments from Bettman, who watched last night's Washington Capitals game with team owner Ted Leonsis, are familiar, as he has touched on similar themes in his ongoing visits to other NHL cities. But the commissioner insists he is not trying to beat the labor drumbeat, even though a work stoppage initiated by either side is widely expected in 2004.

"I'm not out pounding the war drums. But the reality is that in every city I go to, I get asked this question," Bettman said. "We will have a season this year. We will have a season next year. I am optimistic that this will get resolved. But there are going to have to be fundamental changes."

Bettman did not rule out team bankruptcies if the current system extends far beyond 2004. How Bettman handles the sticky labor situation likely will be his defining note as commissioner.

Union officials were not available for comment last night. In recent months, however, Bob Goodenow and other union leaders have steadfastly resisted opening any broad labor discussions. The union is under no legal obligation to do so, and remains quick to point out that player contracts result from joint agreement between player and management.

In other league issues:

•The average length of games so far this season, two hours and 21 minutes, is more than 10 minutes fewer than the 2:37 averaged at the same point last season. The difference, of course, owes to new rules mandating hurried-up line changes and a crackdown on obstruction penalties that have allowed for a freer-flowing game. Some hockey observers have felt the enforcement of the rules has slipped in recent weeks, but Bettman insists the quicker flow of play will remain in place all season.

•League attendance is flat compared to the same point last year. But Bettman said the even number owes almost entirely to the Buffalo Sabres, which are down 28 percent at the gate. A fifth consecutive league attendance record remains possible. Nineteen of 30 clubs have either posted increases or sell out every home game.

•The Sabres, meanwhile, remain under league management and are still searching for a new owner, and the attendance problems there owe to the ongoing uncertainty. Mark Hamister, operator of the Buffalo Destroyers of the Arena Football League, and Thomas Golisano, failed candidate for the governor of New York, have submitted bids. The commissioner has not offered any timetable for a potential sale.

•Bettman expressed satisfaction with the NHL's treatment from ESPN, even amid the sports network's high-profile debut of NBA coverage and a 30-percent drop in national broadcast exposure for hockey this season.

"ESPN has done everything they've promised to do. I'm fine with ESPN," Bettman said. "The drop in games is a good thing. We're now in the same universe as baseball and basketball [in national TV exposure]. We're in a position where we can put our very best matchups out there. I had felt for some time we were carrying tonnage for ESPN2."

•The commissioner said he is taking particular pleasure with the unexpected rise of long-time laggards Tampa Bay, Calgary and Minnesota in the early season standings.

"In my ideal world, you wake up every morning and every team is competitive and has a chance to go to the playoffs," Bettman said. "To see teams like that make improvements and advance toward that ideal is certainly heartening."

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