- The Washington Times - Sunday, February 2, 2003

SUNRISE, Fla. NHL commissioner Gary Bettman delivered his semi-annual State of the League address yesterday, giving him 55 minutes worth of free shots at the NHL Players Association and a chance to shift blame to whatever and whomever he chose.
Bettman, a master spin doctor, uttered not a single disparaging word in the direction of his union adversaries. Not once did the words "salary cap" escape his lips. And the term "work stoppage" was never heard, at least not from him.
The economic realities of the situation may be settling in for the NHL. Two franchises are operating under Chapter11 bankruptcy protection. There is limited network TV exposure and declining ratings. Thirteen of 30 teams reported attendance declines, and six more reported no increase. And, of course, there remains a distinct possibility of a prolonged work stoppage; should it happen in 2004, there is a distinct possibility that four to six teams will not survive.
Bettman did not refuse to address the issues, but he danced around some. Also, there were no veiled references to a rapidly approaching hockey Armageddon, something he's done in previous visits to NHL cities in the United States and Canada.
Meanwhile, in something that may be more than a coincidence, players reported that in meetings with Bob Goodenow, the union's executive director, his rhetoric was toned down several notches recently. Players still are being urged strongly to save their earnings wisely, but predictions of an 18-month work stoppage don't seem accurate.
Most agree that the chief issue the league is facing the one driving many teams to the financial brink is rapidly escalating payrolls. Players and their union blame "irresponsible" owners for the problem men unable to control their purse strings who drive themselves into bankruptcy.
Asked about owners and escalating payrolls, Bettman replied, "If something isn't working right, it doesn't matter why what matters is that you fix it. I'm not going to engage in a public debate. The collective bargaining agreement has another year and a half to run, and obviously what we do is vitally important. But I don't think we need to elevate it at this point to full-blown distraction."
The debate has been going on for several years. This season the average salary in the league is $1.64million. Ten years ago, only the few bona fide superstars made that much.
"Salaries are escalating at an unreal rate," said Dallas star Mike Modano. "There's a leapfrog effect. Guys go in [to see management], the next guy gets in line for his turn. I don't know who's to blame. You can't blame the players. … Players will be the last people to complain about it. We're very fortunate and lucky to be in the position we're in. Hockey is becoming the Jerry Jones and [George] Steinbrenners of the other sports if you got the money, you got the access to the great players. If you got a good team, you can lure players to play for you."
The collective bargaining agreement's nine-year run ends after next season, and reportedly there hasn't been any meetings about a new contract. Owners locked out players for more than 100 days at the start of the 1994-95 season, and a 48-game season resulted.
"I can't be Pollyanna and the voice of doom and gloom at the same time," Bettman said, referring to what was perceived as a change in attitude. "What I try to be is realistic. I gave a realistic assessment last spring of where we were and despite some belief to the contrary, I have not been on a campaign. I have been responding to questions. I have nothing new to add today on the subject. …
"Maybe I'll start getting question after question about collective bargaining, and I won't run away from it. I will answer them to the best of my ability, factually and truthfully as I do every other question. But I am not prepared to beat this into the ground. There is nothing new to be added right now on the subject.
"Would I like to be doing things sooner rather than later? Of course. And at some point, when the union is comfortable, we'll sit down and do what we have to do."
Eight years ago Bettman and Goodenow settled the lockout when they went out to eat at a Chinese restaurant in New York City and hashed out things over egg rolls.
It never has been revealed who picked up that check.

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