- The Washington Times - Sunday, March 28, 2004

The NHL’s version of the Great White North is back.

After a decade of hard times marked by a sharply weakened Canadian dollar, the departure of franchises in Winnipeg and Quebec City to the United States and a bankruptcy from the Ottawa Senators, all six NHL clubs in Canada are eyeing the playoffs.

Ottawa and Toronto have clinched postseason berths. Montreal, Vancouver and Calgary stand in solid shape with a week left in the regular season. And Edmonton, which emerged from the All-Star break in last place in its division and fumbling for identity, surged into seventh place in the Western Conference after Friday night’s games.

Even with the NHL’s permissive playoff structure, Canada has not had every one of its clubs in the postseason since 1986. The significance of getting back to that level is not lost on the Canadian teams or their fans. No Canadian team has won the Stanley Cup since Montreal in 1993, and the country is desperate to break a near chokehold on the greatest trophy in sports established by New Jersey, Colorado and Detroit.

“When you’re competing in our country’s national pasttime and you’re seeing some level of success in every city in the country where that sport is played, it is really very important,” said Ken King, Calgary Flames president. “We’re very cognizant of what this means on both a financial level and a psychological level.”

The financial implications of making the playoffs are critical because each of the Canadian clubs, with the exception of Toronto and its nation of devoted fans, remains on tenuous financial ground. The NHL provides some fiscal assistance to help them, but the franchises still pay players in U.S. dollars and reap revenues in the weaker Canadian currency.

Only Toronto and Vancouver are among the top half of the league in team payroll. Canadian teams occupy four of the 12 lowest slots in Forbes’ annual rankings of projected franchise values and two of the bottom three. A federal aid program for the clubs sought by the league, and particularly Ottawa, four years ago failed to reach fruition and has not been resurrected.

But in the postseason, ticket prices can more than double by the Stanley Cup finals. Pay to players is limited by league-run compensation pools and is much lower on a per-game average than the regular season.

This Canadian uprising also promises to factor into the sport’s fractious labor negotiations. The players’ union likely will argue that this represents further evidence of competitive balance already existing in the marketplace-based system they want to maintain, as well as a triumph of hockey acumen.

King, conversely, says that as welcome as this development is, it is still no panacea. Deep financial losses and mounting debt surround most of the Canadian clubs. And one season is still a long way from the 1980s, when all seven teams then playing north of the border made the playoffs in 1983 and 1986 and narrowly missed the trick in four other seasons.

“If every Canadian team can make the playoffs in this system, then think what could be possible if we had an economic structure that takes away the [current] anxiety and uneasiness,” King said. “Don’t get me wrong, getting into the playoffs is very, very important. We haven’t been in eight years, and our crowds since about Christmas have been very strong, very supportive. We’re thrilled. But relying on a deep playoff run to make it [financially] is no way to run a railroad, or a hockey team.”

NHL commissioner Gary Bettman, for his part, has taken a low profile on the surge of Canadian success. Bettman traditionally has been a strong advocate for Canada and its important role in the history of the sport. But in the heat of the playoff chase, he is firmly resisting any show of favoritism or boosterism toward any particular club.

“Making the playoffs is good news for those markets that reach the playoffs, and if anything, what is happening is a testament to how tight our races are and how difficult it is to make the playoffs,” Bettman said.

That said, both sides are still expected to claim the cause of the Canadian clubs as their own once labor talks begin anew next month.

“There is some fodder here for the [players association] argument, that competitive balance can be achieved in the current system, provided solid hockey management is there. The league is still focused more on the long-term economic structure,” said Jeffrey Citron, a Toronto corporate finance attorney and sports industry consultant. “But it all depends on how you define competing, and with this, we’re still dealing with only one snapshot of a larger picture. And not surprisingly, there is a great deal of disagreement on what being competitive means.”

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