- The Washington Times - Wednesday, September 15, 2004

TORONTO — Some time today, probably mid- to late-afternoon, the NHL will lock out its players for the second time in 10 years.

The question is, will anybody notice? A better question might be, does anybody care?

The NHL is locking out its 690 players because it has not reached an agreement on a new collective bargaining agreement with its players’ union. The old one expires at midnight.

There are dozens of issues — some reasonably important, others of almost no consequence — but only one really matters: a salary cap. The owners claim they can’t function without one; the union won’t discuss any proposal that contains the words “salary cap” or “cost certainty.”

“Our game right now is in such shambles in terms of where we’re going with this lockout, with our agreement and with our fans — they’re going to take a big hit, and the scary thing is half the people out there aren’t going to care that we’re not playing,” said Jeremy Roenick, a power forward for the Philadelphia Flyers who has been doing color commentary for ESPN during the World Cup of Hockey tournament.

“Why don’t they care? We need to make our game better, to make it more exciting,” Roenick said. “Hopefully, with this lockout will come changes that will make it more exciting — shootouts at the end of tie games, take out the red line, create a penalty for illegal defenses [i.e., the neutral zone trap] like they have in the NBA. Make it a 4-on-4 league.

“I don’t know what the answers are except right now people are losing jobs. If we went to 4-on-4, I’d be out of a job but if you want to talk about the league, you have to talk about what’s best for the game. Right now the fans are not excited about what they see when they come to the rinks. You have to fix that. … We need to create excitement, and we can’t have it where it’s going to cost $500 to bring a family of three to a game. The players will have to take a [financial] hit for that.”

The last CBA the two sides negotiated was in early 1995 after a lockout of more than three months. The average NHL salary at that time was $733,000; today it’s $1.83 million. There have been occasional negotiation sessions during the last few months but none since Thursday, when the union’s latest offer was quickly rejected by the league. No more are scheduled.

Asked how something as large and influential as a professional sports league could find itself in this kind of trouble twice in a decade, Roenick replied, “Egos. You’ve got big egos on both sides that don’t want to break,” said the center who lived for a time in Fairfax County before he was drafted in the first round in 1988 by Chicago.

“Everybody believed this system would work back in 1994, but it doesn’t work,” said Brian Burke, who was fired as general manager of the Vancouver Canucks after the playoffs. Burke, a lawyer, has great knowledge of the situation because he was director of hockey operations for the league when the last CBA was hammered out. He also has been a GM of two teams, a player and an agent.

“The players feel they’re entitled to the percentage of revenue they have in the business right now [about 75 percent] and the owners don’t.” Burke said. “I think the industry is clearly in trouble, and there needs to be a restructuring. It’s not unusual to have a fight over things like that.

“The industry is very healthy from a revenue standpoint. The problem is the cost. Player costs are too high a percentage of league revenues. It’s way out of whack with other sports. As a result, too many teams [two-thirds of the 30 clubs] are losing money, and the industry is in trouble.”

Burke conceded contraction might help the situation but he did not see it as a solution when successful negotiations could come up with a plan to benefit both sides.

“I believe there’s a deal to be made there,” Burke said. “I don’t understand why we’re not playing.”

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