- The Washington Times - Wednesday, June 9, 2004

TAMPA, Fla. — If there isn’t going to be another NHL game anytime soon, newly crowned Stanley Cup champion Tampa Bay and runner-up Calgary did the league proud with an often-riveting, seven-game finals that included two overtime thrillers, four straight one-goal games and the sixth comeback from a 3-2 deficit in the event’s 65 years.

However, the Lightning’s victory Monday night also likely signaled the end of an era. Having shut down the league for nearly half a season in 1994-1995 because of skyrocketing player salaries, NHL owners have done little to keep them from surging in the nine years since. So they’re prepared to play hardball (hard puck?) with the players association again with talks between commissioner Gary Bettman and NHLPA executive director Bob Goodenow on a new collective bargaining agreement going nowhere and the CBA set to expire Sept.15.

The owners claim they lost approximately $270million last season — a figure heatedly disputed by the NHLPA — as the average player salary has surpassed even that of the financially robust NFL. Bettman said NHL players receive 75 percent of gross revenues, a marked difference from the roughly 60 percent seen in the NFL, NBA and Major League Baseball.

Buffalo and Ottawa emerged from bankruptcy under new ownership this season, but most of the 24 U.S. franchises, led by Pittsburgh, are seriously in the red. Despite protests to the contrary by Bettman and Washington owner Ted Leonsis, who led the league in trimming salaries this season, the Capitals are one of the teams whose name was bandied about during the finals as a candidate for contraction if the NHL is really put on ice for a year.

No one will say so publicly, but it has been widely reported that the owners want a $31million salary cap. So the victory by the Lightning, whose payroll is roughly $36million — less than half of teams like the New York Rangers and Detroit — will surely be used by the owners as proof that low-salary teams can win. Ten Red Wings and eight Rangers — before their trade deadline cost-cutting — made more than any Lightning player except goalie Nikolai Khabibulin. The Flames had a similar payroll, with only superstar Jarome Iginla and former No.1 goalie Roman Turek making more than $2.4million.

Of course, the NHLPA will argue that the system isn’t broken if low-budget teams like Tampa Bay and Calgary can make the finals on the heels of similarly structured Anaheim beating even more cost-conscious Minnesota to reach that stage in 2003.

It’s easy to see Calgary following recent one-shot finalists Anaheim, Carolina (2002), Buffalo (1999), Washington (1998) and Florida (1996), who have combined to win only one playoff series since their moments in the spotlight, especially with the looming expiration of Iginla’s contract either going to skew the Flames’ payroll or cost them the most popular citizen in Alberta.

But Tampa Bay, which has won two straight Southeast Division titles and joined the 1999 Dallas Stars as the only Sunbelt franchises to capture the Cup, is better built for the long haul. Most of its top players — led by NHL leading scorer Martin St. Louis and 24-year-old playoff MVP Brad Richards — are on the way up, and only four regulars are in their 30s. Coach John Tortorella’s up-tempo “Safe is Death” style could entice back to arenas and television sets a younger generation of fans turned off by the defense-first schemes typified by New Jersey, which won three Cups from 1995 to 2003.

“We tried to play the attack style all year,” said Richards, who set a record with seven playoff game-winning goals. “It’s aggressive. Guys are pinching. You get caught sometimes, but we live with it and as long as everybody is on the same page backchecking and trying to win every battle, we’re very confident we can win with it and we did.”

While Bettman was thrilled to see another dividend from his questionable Sunbelt strategy, it would have been more appropriate for the Cup to have gone to Calgary, one of the league’s coldest cities. After all, the NHL could be entering an ice age of its own making.

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