- The Washington Times - Wednesday, March 2, 2005

Ted Leonsis could think of only one word to describe the cancellation of the NHL season: “painful.”

“We’re not going to let this happen again,” the Washington Capitals owner said. “You can’t go two years without playing. Obviously if they can’t make progress ever, something has to happen.”

Leonsis, Caps president Dick Patrick and general manager George McPhee were among more than 100 owners and team executives at a five-hour board of governors meeting in New York on Tuesday. It was the first meeting of NHL ownership since the players were locked out Sept. 15.

At the meeting, NHL commissioner Gary Bettman made it clear to Leonsis and the other owners that preparations needed to be under way for the 2005-06 season.

“We’ve been given homework assignments as to what do we have to do to get started next season,” Leonsis said. “The goal is to get a season up and running.”

Whether that will include the players remains to be seen, especially as the effects of the loss of the season, the first in major North American professional sports, become clear. The NHL was a $2.1 billion operation in 2003-04. An industry analyst said in yesterday’s New York Times that potential revenues may have shrunk to $800 million.

If that is accurate, it would have a staggering effect on the amount of money the NHL will have available to locked-out union members.

“If we were a $2 billion a year business based on ticket sales and such and I think my ticket sales are going to be cut by 40 percent and they roll all that up, that’s going to start to dictate what a salary cap would look like,” Leonsis said.

A hard salary cap — a link between incoming revenue and outgoing payments, such as salaries — has been the main stumbling block; the owners demanded one, while the union refused. That changed last month when both sides backed off in a desperate effort to save the season, which was canceled nonetheless Feb.16.

For now, the goal simply is to get the two sides talking again, and even the window for that is starting to close.

Bettman told the owners they would reassemble in 6-8 weeks if no progress had been made. At that point, Leonsis said, they thought Bettman would present an alternative plan for a season without the blessing of the players association, which might include replacement players. That likely would involve the NHL declaring an impasse, the two sides ending up in court and the players striking.

“We didn’t discuss that for five minutes, honestly,” Leonsis said. “I believe [Bettman] didn’t even want to address that. But the talk is, by the next meeting there will be progress, and if not, [Bettman] will come to us with an alternative plan.”

Leonsis said the Caps were “in a very unique position because the fan base we have is rock solid. We’ve lost less than 150 season ticket holders since the lockout began. When the season was canceled, we lost six.”

But he admitted he can’t build that base without hockey, and obviously there won’t be any until the labor dispute is resolved.

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