- The Washington Times - Saturday, February 7, 2004

ST. PAUL, Minn. — The NHL All-Star Game is intended to be a party, a midseason holiday to celebrate hockey and all who support it.

This time, however, the mood is not quite so festive.

One of the sport’s true hotbeds, the Xcel Energy Center, is predictably sold out for tomorrow’s game and tonight’s skills competition and a morning practice today.

But with labor woes already upon the NHL and a lengthy lockout expected this fall, even those most passionate about hockey know this weekend very well could be the beginning of the end of the league, as least as it currently stands.

“There really hasn’t been any cause for increased optimism [about a settlement],” said Jeffrey Citron, a Toronto corporate finance attorney and sports industry consultant. “There are still lines being drawn in the sand, positions being hardened. There’s still time for an agreement, but the clock is clearly ticking.”

The current labor agreement between owners and players expires Sept.15, and though seven months of negotiating time remain, the two sides could not be further apart. Management continues to insist upon “cost certainty,” or in layman’s terms a salary cap or similar type of economic system that rigidly controls costs and firmly ties them to revenue.

Industry sources have pegged an optimal salary cap in management’s eyes to around $40million, a figure below the current payroll of 14 clubs.

Players, meanwhile, insist the NHL’s claim of $300million in fiscal losses last season with a similar figure expected this season, is simply the result of accounting magic and that the sport is far more solvent than widely believed. Similar to the position assumed by the Major League Baseball Players Association two years ago, hockey players fervently want to maintain the current free-market system that has tripled average salaries to $1.79million since 1994.

This basic paradigm has existed for months, but the recent language out of both camps has grown far more strident. Some leaders within the union have stopped caring altogether about the public relations element of the battle and are completely focused on the core economics. And whispers of some financially strapped franchises not surviving a lengthy work stoppage — something NHL officials have sought to stamp out — have not ceased.

“The bottom line is, if they want a hard [salary] cap, we’ll sit out for the rest of our lives,” Bryan McCabe, Toronto Maple Leafs defenseman and union representative, recently told the Toronto Star. “If they’re not going to budge off of that, there’s really nowhere to go.”

The two sides have conducted more than a dozen negotiation sessions during the last year. But no substantial progress has been made, and bickering has broken out even as to what constitutes a meeting. No talks are planned for this weekend, even as senior officials from both camps gather here and have been visibly friendly and cordial on other issues, including this fall’s World Cup of Hockey.

Although NHL officials insist the current debate is centered on controlling expenses, growing revenue arguably stands as the more pressing issue. Gross NHL revenues now amount to about $2billion a year, more than twice the sum 10 years ago. But with no more lucrative expansion fees in the offing, broadcast rights likely to stay flat or decrease in value and ticket prices near a breaking point, further revenue escalation is anything but certain.

League officials say 76 cents of every dollar generated is paid back out in player salaries, dramatically more than the percentages in the three other major U.S. sports leagues.

The All-Star gala, however, is not without its success stories and bullishness. Beyond the sold-out events at Xcel, the companion All-Star FANtasy, a collection of hockey games, memorabilia and exhibits similar to MLB’s Fan Fest or the NBA Jam Session, is expected to draw more than 80,000 visitors. ABC and ESPN, which will televise the festivities this weekend, are planning to man the arena with 22 cameras, roughly twice the number for a usual hockey broadcast. Included in that number will be a SkyCam, which has caused considerable debate for its use during NFL games.

The late Herb Brooks will be honored prior to tomorrow’s game. Brooks, a native of St. Paul, led the University of Minnesota to three NCAA hockey titles in the 1970s and the 1980 U.S. Olympic squad to improbable gold medal glory and is now immortalized in the Disney film, “Miracle.”

And given the heavy presence here by primary league sponsors such as Anheuser-Busch, Coca-Cola, Nextel, Best Buy and Southwest Airlines, corporate support of the NHL clearly remains healthy.

“We’re here to celebrate the game and the players,” said Bill Daly, NHL executive vice president. “We want, ideally, to have the [collective bargaining] issue in the background, not only during All-Star [weekend] but the rest of the season. I obviously understand the attention and focus on this issue, but we’d ideally like to have it in the background.”

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