- The Washington Times - Sunday, February 8, 2004

ST. PAUL, Minn. — Hockey’s labor war turned white hot yesterday as league and union officials continued to disagree on the most basic economic issues affecting the sport.

NHL commissioner Gary Bettman said he intended this weekend’s All-Star break to act as a temporary tonic for fiscal struggles that have enveloped the game for more than two years. But after just a few minutes of media inquiries, Bettman was quickly firing fastballs in the union’s direction.

“We understand our economic issues. But unless the union will acknowledge our economic problems we have, the negotiations are not going to progress,” Bettman said. “The union does not have a fixed share of revenues. That’s a pretty fundamental issue. The only way we can address our economic issues is [if] we have a relationship between revenues and expenses.

“You build a house from the foundation up, not from the roof down,” he said.

According to its officials, the NHL pays out about 76 percent of its revenues in player salaries. Each of the other major sports leagues is much closer to 60 percent.

Among Bettman’s other salvos toward the union:

• The NHL did not propose a hard salary cap as low as $31million, as has been widely whispered within the industry. “What we did we propose was to link revenues and expenses on a fundamental level. There was no hard cap. I defy anyone to show me a document that says otherwise.”

• The union’s dispute over NHL claims of $300million in annual losses are hollow. “I know they know what the [economic] situation is. What they say [to the media] and they say to us may not be the same. We believe our bookkeeping is accurate.”

• Union instructions to players to prepare for two years or more without hockey are without foundation. “I don’t know why anybody says that.”

Union executive director Bob Goodenow found fault, predictably, with each of Bettman’s comments and pledged a continuation of the current free market system that has tripled average salaries in the last decade to $1.79million.

“Are there issues? Sure, there are issues. And as they have come up, we have responded,” Goodenow said. “But it is going to be a marketplace system.”

Though seven months of negotiating time remain before the current labor agreement’s Sept.15 expiration, the broad friction between the two sides has each stashing money away for a long work stoppage. The league’s labor war chest is estimated at more than $300million, and several of the All-Stars playing here this weekend acknowledged bulking up their personal accounts. And the Board of Governors did discuss potential lockout ramifications during a meeting here yesterday.

“There’s no question there has to be economic changes,” said Philadelphia Flyers center Jeremy Roenick. “But it needs to be in the right places. [The owners] can dig in all they want. The players can dig in just as hard.”

Independent of ideology, signs of financial distress are evident across the NHL. Both Buffalo and Ottawa filed for bankruptcy protection last year, a fate narrowly averted by several other clubs. And numerous teams, including the Washington Capitals, continue to struggle under declining attendance.

In other league business, NHL general managers will meet next week in Las Vegas to discuss potential rule changes. Possible moves, some of which are fairly radical, include eliminating the red line, mandating penalties be served fully regardless of what a team on the power play does, shrinking goalie pads and perhaps even expanding the ice surface.

Bettman says he expects suggestions by summer that he can take back to the Board of Governors for a vote. In general, the commissioner says he wants to boost offense, not at all shocking considering scoring is at its lowest levels in more than 50 years.

With the NHL’s television rights currently for bid, Bettman remains confident the league can at least equal the $120million a year reaped from ABC and ESPN.

Industry sources, however, point to the two networks wanting to cut their fees significantly or take hockey off broadcast TV, and perhaps both. Bettman yesterday did acknowledge the current labor woes are “obviously an issue” in the TV talks. Ratings have been minimal during most of the current five-year contract.

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