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Feb. 18, 2005

NHL must use this travesty to revamp its product

by Michael Bushnell, Page Editor
What the NHL Players Association needed during the last couple of months was some Dr. Phil. They needed to get real. This season went dark for five months because both sides were lazy in meeting and starting a real dialogue. But it ended because the union is blind to all the red ink this league has been hemorrhaging the last 10 years. And now, as a result, the league will need to dramatically overhaul their whole product, or risk oblivion.

Union head Bob Goodenow blinked Monday night, finally saying that he would accept a salary cap, albeit one at $52 million. When I saw that, I thought that he had to be joking. That's way too much for the NHL to pay out, team to team.

Granted, the owners are not absolved of any blame, and certainly commissioner Gary Bettman, who stuck the final nail into the 2004-2005 season's coffin Wednesday afternoon isn't either.

It's not so much that Bettman expanded to Sun Belt towns like Nashville, Atlanta, Tampa, Miami and Dallas"they're all booming, wealthy cities. It's that, in doing so, he created hundreds of more slots for fringe NHL players, diluting the product and forcing the league to pay tens of millions a year in salaries.

And yes, the owners spent lavishly on free agents. But they had to compete with the wealthy, deep-pocketed teams. Ted Leonsis here in Washington did in 2001, and now, when gets a cut on his body, instead of blood, $100 bills come out. Well, not really, but the Capitals are bleeding money,

21 teams lost money last season. It was less costly for some teams, including Washington, to not have any hockey at all this year than actually play a full season. The NHL had an independent audit that showed the league lost $273 million two years ago. Bettman's right; the system had to change, and it needed a cap.

The salary cap works great in successful, profitable leagues like the NBA and the NFL. The players in hockey will get paid what they're worth, and because of over expansion, there are plenty of guys making $450,000 in Atlanta, when they deserve $65,000 in the minor leagues in Manchester, N.H.

The owners can't all just conspire to pay less; that's collusion and that's illegal. But they can, and now will, put in a salary cap with ties to revenues. The league can't continue to lose money and keep all 30 teams healthy.

The union blew this big time. They held pat for two years on not having a salary cap being part of the new NHL and then caved in. Even though their deal is now off the table, the precedent has been set. It was a five-month stare down, and the NHLPA blinked first.

I don't like the "spoiled players” debate, either. These guys should not be making $35,000 a year. They are the focus of a $2.1 billion entertainment industry, and should be paid to reflect that. But the head of the union overplayed his hand and did a disservice to his members.

Bob Goodenow did a horrendous job during this process in representing his players. He held out for months, costing all his clients their paychecks for 54 games, then said he would take a cap. He refused an NHL offer of a luxury tax and then gave in even more.

He lost hundreds of millions in salaries for the players, and then got nothing he wanted. And the offer of a $42.5 million cap (that could've likely been stretched to $45 million) is the best the union will ever get. He has to pay for this with his job.

Unions are great, and the political people who wish to disband them upset me. I think every person in a field deserves a union, from steelworkers to teachers to people at Wal-Mart to athletes. And often time, the unions make moves that are unpopular (like when UPS workers went on strike) but that are ultimately good for those they represent. Goodenow used the fans, and he used the guys who voted him in. After he offered the salary cap on Monday, numerous team player representatives told media that they had heard no word about the offer before they read it in the newspaper or saw it on TV.

That said, Bettman was equally as bad in getting the negotiations started. They didn't meet for the first three months of the lockout that began Sept. 15, and didn't have any real talks before September. One NHL source told me last spring that Bettman and Goodenow "wouldn't meet until September 14.” Well, it took until two weeks ago to get any real action, which is a disgrace.

But at least he gave the owners what they wanted in a salary cap. All the owners appear behind Bettman, or at least a vast majority of them. The union is fractured because they guys at the top didn't realize that the owners really did want to pay the players a lot, but not more than they could afford.

In fact, if the NHL got more popular and made money, the players would benefit. Everybody wins when the NHL is on the ice and popular.

But when there is no hockey, nobody wins, on either side. It took baseball ten years and about 15 new stadiums after the strike to get back to where it was in 1994. And that's the national pastime.

The NHL cannot widen the ice to Olympic size, but there are many things they can do to improve the best live sport in the world. Had there been a deal by Wednesday, the league was going to immediately implement all the AHL rules changes"wider blue lines, tag-up off-sides, a crack down on obstruction, less goalie movement"so that the game would be more fluid.

The best hockey of the last few years came at the 2002 Olympics in Salt Lake City, where the Delta Center hosted a tournament of deft skating, strategy and excitement every night. The final between the U.S. and Canada was incredible to watch; my whole family, who never watches hockey, was glued to the TV and was amazed how quick the game went by.

That's what the league doesn't just need"it absolutely has got to have these rule changes. I don't believe that people will boycott because of the strike if the product every night is high. If the NHL becomes fun to watch again, fans will put their petty grudges aside and come back.

This league needs a total face-lift, on and off the ice. The owners need a cap, and they need to make sure they're not losing money. After all, the most valuable NHL team is still worth less than the Arizona Cardinals.

I only hope, that at the end of this long sit down, the league comes back more accessible than ever. Behind Gary Bettman's arrogance yesterday in saying that it will be at most "a couple years” before the fans all return, I saw somebody who actually realizes the dire straits this league is now in when it comes back next year. And it must play a full schedule next year.

This is bad. Very, very bad and unlike any work stoppage we've ever seen. But at this point it can only get better if the two sides put a much better product on the ice.

And if the union realizes the financial situation the league is in. Like Bettman's announcement, they're horrible. They have got to change, and the sides have to do it this spring. Or we may be looking at something so bad with the NHL that makes Wednesday look like nothing.

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  • Medicin Man on February 21, 2005 at 1:28 AM
    YEAH MIKE! thats whats up...
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