- The Washington Times - Wednesday, June 30, 2004

The ongoing NHL labor dispute is being seen by most mainstream American and Canadian fans as an all-too-typical battle between the rich and the richer.

That much is true, but more than two months before the Sept.15 expiration of the existing labor deal, largely anonymous rank-and-filers in NHL front offices across North America already are feeling the ill effects of a widely expected work stoppage.

More than 100 team staffers have been fired or laid off in recent weeks, with several hundred more expected to be let go or have their hours and pay slashed this fall if the league makes good on its threat of a lockout without a fundamentally different economic system.

The biggest job hit is expected within the NHL’s New York headquarters and Toronto office, where half of the staff, numbering more than 300 people, could be laid off come September.

“Most clubs have focused on developing contingency plans and are planning for the future,” NHL commissioner Gary Bettman said. “Anything we would do [at the league office] would not begin unless and until there is a work stoppage. But this is an unfortunate reality of life.”

The impetus for the cuts is clear: With activity across the hockey world tempered significantly because of the labor uncertainty, teams want to save money and no longer have sufficient work for full-sized staffs.

“We’re having to cut back to bare bones,” said Jim Lites, president of the Dallas Stars, who have let go nearly two dozen people from their 85-person front office. “We have several other lines of business that are ongoing, and we will continue to run, most notably our 16 sheets of amateur ice. But my job as a businessman is to prepare both for the possibility of playing and the possibility of not playing. We have to be prepared either way.”

On top of the mass layoffs and firings, dozens of staffers across the league have resigned voluntarily, leaving behind positions that will not be refilled anytime soon. And it’s not hard to understand why. Owners and players remain diametrically opposed on the sport’s most fundamental economics. Management wants a defined link between player costs and revenues, ideally a salary cap. Players want to maintain the current, more marketplace-based system.

Several rounds of negotiations since last fall have produced no meaningful progress. In fact, the two sides continue to disagree vehemently on the size of the NHL’s business and what truly constitutes hockey-related revenue.

As the saga drags out, part-time employees will suffer in much the same way as their full-time counterparts. If there is no hockey this fall, hundreds of game-related employees, such as security guards, parking attendants, ushers and vendors, will have no work.

If a lockout extends past a year, many industry insiders expect the NHL to be unable to field a full 30-team slate, further extending the job losses.

The Washington Capitals have parted ways with nearly 20 members of their 70-person front office through either firings or voluntary resignations. Team officials insist the cuts are not ostensibly driven by the labor situation but acknowledge decisions on whether to refill some positions are on hold until learning when the 2004-05 season will start.

“We’re certainly trying to be as efficient as we can,” Caps president Dick Patrick said.

Leaguewide, the staff cuts are more extensive than those seen in the days leading up to and during the 103-day NHL lockout of 1994-95.

“It’s sort of a different feeling now,” Patrick said. “Last time, there was, I think, a prevailing thought that it could be settled at any time. You obviously hope we can settle [the current dispute] without losing any games. But you don’t know how long this could take.”

In the event of a lockout, players will not be paid, and many might play next season in one of several top-tier European leagues as a result.

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