- The Washington Times - Thursday, March 18, 2004

Washington Capitals owner Ted Leonsis, facing widespread criticism and disgust toward the team’s unprecedented fire sale, received a strong show of support yesterday from hockey’s top boss.

NHL commissioner Gary Bettman defended Leonsis, who slashed roughly $30million in payroll, for making a brave decision in the face of a highly uncertain future for the league.

“Ted has been a great owner. He has invested himself emotionally, enthusiastically, financially in this franchise, and he did it in a way that was quite expensive,” Bettman said. “Instead of being stubborn and trying to keep fighting through in a situation that wasn’t working, he showed courage and good business sense. He deserves a great deal of credit. And long-term, I view this as a good thing for the fans. He’s given the franchise much more flexibility.

“If it’s not working, you try something else. I believe Ted and George [McPhee, general manager] are responding in large part to what the fans want.”

Current Caps attendance figures, however, dispute that notion. The team’s average draw was 14,740 entering last night’s game against the New York Rangers, down 6 percent from last season and 25th in the NHL. There has been no meaningful improvement since the trading deadline.

But Leonsis is already planning a widespread ticket price decrease for next season — assuming there is a next season — matching price reduction efforts under way in Pittsburgh and under consideration in Edmonton.

Bettman said it will take 12 to 18 months to fully evaluate the Caps’ massive purge that saw the departure of Jaromir Jagr, Robert Lang, Peter Bondra, Sergei Gonchar, Michael Nylander, Mike Grier and Steve Konowalchuk.

“It’s easy to criticize when someone takes decisive action,” he said. “But we have to be patient and see how it plays out.”

Bettman, visiting Washington last night in his annual tour of NHL markets, tried to put a similarly positive spin on the NHL’s fractious labor situation. But in this case, the problems run much deeper than a cadre of angry fans.

The league-commissioned Levitt report, released last month, indicated a $273million operating loss for the 2002-03 season. And even when factoring out the origin of the report, there is no disputing that each NHL club receives just $4million in national TV rights compared to $77million for each NFL club despite similar average salaries.

NHL executives want to implement an economic system with “cost certainty,” code language for either a luxury tax or salary cap. The players’ union, conversely, is fierce in its desire to maintain the current market-based system where average salaries have more than tripled in the last 15 years to more than $1.7million. The current labor pact expires Sept.15, and both sides have stashed away millions for a lockout that many believe could last years.

After months of angry rhetoric, formal negotiations will start next month with a possibility of regular sessions throughout the spring.

“Right now, it’s just ‘let’s get together and talk’” Bettman said. “There’s not a lot of structure [to the sessions] right now. But it is time to move forward. The fortunate thing is that this is not a new process. This is all part of an ongoing dialogue that goes back to 1999. That’s why there is such a strong knowledge on both sides on all the issues.”

Bettman’s comments aside, there remains substantial disagreement between management and the union on even how much money is actually coming into the league. Union officials have been very dismissive about the Levitt report and continue to argue that several teams are shielding key revenue sources in the accounting ledgers of related companies.

“I have no doubt at all to the solidarity of the players,” Ted Saskin, NHL Players Association senior director of business affairs, said earlier this month. “Hockey players, if someone wants to pick a fight with them, are accustomed to responding.”

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