DARK CLOUDS

 

As we witness the preseason warm-ups currently happening in the NHL, a dark cloud looms over every arena.  Everyone from the commissioner, the general managers, the coaches, the players, and the fans all look towards September 15, 2004 as an historic day for hockey.  Even though itís still under a year away, it will be a story of make it or break it, and if it becomes broken, fixing it promises to be extremely difficult.

Why then does everybody involved appear to have their collective thumbs stuck you know where?  Why does the pending madness we refer to as the regular season look more like a chess match?  Why is it so difficult for the players union to make a move now rather than later?  How much more money does the NHL have to lose before somebody skates up to centre ice and says no more?

To answer the last question, one must obtain a handle on the NHLís finances.  Recently the annual figures were released to the tune of a collective $300 million deficit for the league as a whole, up from approximately $218 million the year before.  The losses were blamed mostly on increasing player salaries (surprise, surprise). 

To put this into perspective, the NHL reported $1.93 billion in actual revenues for the 2002/03 season, which means seventy six percent of the total revenue was spent on salaries and benefits.  This is more than the NBA, NFL and MLB combined!  Yet the NHL continues to wonder why the fan base has decreased and why the league does better in game day sales than they do for season tickets.

For starters, the average fan canít even afford tickets unless they put a second mortgage on their home.  Assuming a family of four goes to a game, youíre looking at easily a $500 night to have good seats and concessions, and these seats would definitely not be behind the playersí bench.  Most of todayís modern arenas can seat at least 18,000 fans, some more, but for the sake of argument weíll stick with this.  If the average fan spends $125 for the night, including the cost of admission, by my example, a sold out game would make at least $2,250,000.  Because ticket prices fluctuate, obviously some will spend more, but every arena can easily take in this amount of dough every game (even if they donít always sell out).  Throughout a season which sees a team play eighty two games, forty one at home, the amount would be close to $93 million in revenue.  So if the players are supposedly getting seventy six percent of this, or $71 million, the team and league is splitting a share of around $22 million per team.  Of course there are the day to day operating costs which need to be considered such as air travel, team, arena and concession staff, among other things.  Somehow at the end of the day, the league is posting a loss.  Apparently the playoffs arenít even a factor here as they are referred to as simply gravy.

I know my figures are very crude calculations, but if in fact the players are getting the huge share they are reported to be getting, one has to wonder how long this can go on before the NHL declares bankruptcy.  It happened to two teams last season, how many more will have to before this supposed battle is over?  At least this is the question the NHL wants us to ask!

There seems to be a discrepancy between what the NHL is reporting and what they seem to be taking in.  Ticket prices continue to go up, but in a lot of cases the fans simply arenít showing up.  The league would have us believe markets where hockey sells night in and night out are picking up the slack from the markets where the fans have decided to stay in and watch the game on television.  Somewhere, somebody is making a fast buck, and I personally donít think itís just the players.  Yes they do get paid their share and yes something needs to be done about salaries over the long term to keep hockey alive, but I personally suspect more to this than meets the eye.  I havenít even gotten into corporate sponsorships and revenue generated by television broadcasts because these arenít always guaranteed sources of income, but Iím sure they more than do their part to alleviate some of the losses.

In the meantime, our friend Gary Bettman has sent out an invitation to the NHL Players Association to sit down and iron out all the discrepancies before the current agreement expires next year, yet they havenít budged.  Why?  If the solution is as easy as negotiating a salary cap and a possible luxury tax similar to what happened in baseball, then why wonít they get cracking before itís too late?

Thereís no question the salaries have to be brought under control.  Perhaps a system similar to what the NBA uses could work here; if a team surpasses the salary cap, they have to pay a certain percentage to the league, which they then distribute amongst the other teams.  My thinking here is the New York Rangers, Detroit Red Wings and Colorado Avalanche could save one or more small market teams over the course of a preseason at the rate theyíre going.

As a commentator and fan of the game, I am puzzled by the stand the NHLPA has taken, as Iím sure every owner, coach, player and fan is.  Itís really too bad this dark cloud will hang over our heads throughout what promises to be an exciting season.  Letís not also forget next summer will be time for the second World Cup of Hockey (formerly referred to as the Canada Cup).

The optimist in me says all will be fine, but the pessimist in me looks back at the season that almost wasnít in 1995 and hopes history wonít repeat itself in 2004/05.  Some players have gone so far as to say they will retire or move overseas to play should this whole mess not get sorted out.  What this could end up doing to the league we love to watch is so scary I donít even want to go there.  I will say, however, the owners from all thirty teams need the NHL to survive beyond 2004 just as much as the players do, more in some cases.

At least we have this season to do as Mr. Bettman has requested us to do, sit back and enjoy and let the people who have a say in all of this worry about the logistics.  However, the closer the day of reckoning gets, the easier this will be said than done.

I think the often outspoken Brett Hull put it best in a recent interview:

ďI don't know if I have delusions or what, but the world is made up of mathematical equations, so there has got to be a way to do some sort of mathematical equation to satisfy both sides,Ē the Red Wings forward told the Detroit Free Press.  ďI know they want a cap and we're not going to take a cap, so figure it out from there because that is the only issue.Ē

ďI don't think the owners, and I certainly know the players, can't afford it, so they've got to figure this out.  There are teams that just opened brand new buildings and, as much as they say they're losing money, without revenue they can't pay on their new buildings. So they've got to have something coming in to help them. They need to play just like we need to play.Ē

ďHopefully, they'll put the egos aside, both sides, and they'll work it out, because this league cannot afford a lockout.Ē

Enough said.

 

LIGHTER NOTES

On a lighter note, there are at least a handful of teams who are doing their part when it comes to salary issues.  One of them is the storied Edmonton Oilers, who appear to be playing hardball with their star centre Mike Comrie until he comes to his senses.  Another is the Ottawa Senators, who are simply being careful not to spend Eugene Melnykís money faster than they can get it, as they offer Martin Havlat what they feel heís worth, not what his agents feel heís worth.

Small markets aside, even the Detroit Red Wings felt Sergei Fedorov wasnít worth what he wanted (although he didn't make much of a case for himself, more to come), so they allowed him to clip his wings and become an Anaheim Mighty Duck.  As for the Ducks, they want to make it back to the Stanley Cup finals, but not at the rate Paul Kariya wanted, so he bolted to Colorado.  Minnesota is taking a similar stance with Marian Gaborik.

It all boils down to this: the teams have the money, but why spend it all on one player?  The common consensus seems to be getting the salaries under control now, not later.  However, part of the problem is the agents these players answer to.  I mentioned Martin Havlat in Ottawa.  This young man is well worth the price of admission any night of the year, but at what expense?  Havlat wants to play in Ottawa, and Ottawa wants to have him on the team, yet his agent Allan Walsh has slammed the Senators for ďnot making a serious offerĒ.  Ottawa offered $1 million per season plus bonuses, yet the Havlat camp headed by Walsh appears to be looking for a deal similar to what Brad Richards signed in Tampa Bay, which would be closer to $3 million a season.  Thereís no doubt Havlat is worth the money, but the situation Ottawa is in is much more unique than Tampaís.  The Lightning actually need a star player like Richards if theyíre going to be successful, but the Senators wonít need Havlat to succeed.  They already proved this to Alexei Yashin and I have no doubt theyíll prove it again.  You can expect the Senators will once again stand pat and wait this one out, just like they did last year with Karel Rachunek, and Yashin before him.

Itís interesting to note Allan Walsh is the same agent who also represents Marian Gaborik in Minnesota.  Gaborik remains unsigned as well.  John Muckler, general manager of the Ottawa Senators, doesnít understand Walshís way of thinking.  As he put it, when you want to get a deal done you communicate, but apparently Walsh wonít return Mucklerís calls!  Itís something Muckler says heís never seen in all of his years in hockey.  Kind of makes one wonder whoís more to blame for escalating salaries, the players or the agents? 

The Mike Comrie situation in Edmonton is an interesting one.  Comrie wants to make a deal and wants to be with the team (and I for one want to watch him play!).  He even showed up for training camp, only to be turned away until a contract is signed.  Again, both sides appear to be about $2 million apart from making a deal.  Then again, Kevin Lowe has realized some of the potential talent he has down on the farm and is willing to give them a chance first.  This way the rationale is Comrie will come around and want to play so bad he will sign on the dotted line before the playoffs roll around, assuming the Oilers qualify.

As for Sergei Fedorov, recently he came out of his shell and spoke about the real reason he left Detroit behind to play for Anaheim.  Apparently it wasnít about the money, it was about his ex Anna Kournikova.  After their bitter breakup, Fedorov says he couldnít focus properly on the job at hand and a change of scenery is just what the doctor ordered.  Apparently he told the Red Wings general manager Ken Holland he was dealing with personal issues which kept him from mentally honing in on contract numbers.  I imagine the feeling must be mutual as far as Kournikova is concerned, because she has dropped like a brick in the worldwide tennis rankings, even though she stated in a recent Maxim interview the breakup with Fedorov was the best thing that could have happened to her.  Itís a classic case of he said she said, and I can speak from my own male experience when I tell you the last thing Fedorov will ever do is admit he had any wrong doing in the souring of the relationship.  In fact, itís been reported Fedorov not only left Detroit, but also the Octagon company, his and his exí former agent, holding them responsible, among other things, for introducing Kournikova to her latest flame, none other than pop star Enrique Iglesias.  As for Anna, she is expected to retire from tennis due to recurring back problems.

In the meantime, Paul Kariya bolted to Colorado to be reunited with the Finnish Flash, Teemu Selanne, and so far the dynamic duo appear as though they still have the chemistry they had when they led the Ducks in scoring a few years ago.  Throw in the added punch of Joe Sakic, Peter Forsberg and Milan Hejduk and the Colorado Avalanche all of a sudden go from first round doormats to legitimate Stanley Cup contenders, but only if their goaltending situation works out.  David Aebischer has to prove himself as a number one goalie and Colorado has to do well out of the gate or else the second guessing will begin long before the All-Star break.  One thing you definitely wonít see is a return of Patrick Roy a la Dominik Hasek.

And finally, in probably the best story Iíve heard all month, it seems the hockey team everybody loves to hate is living their own real life Rodney Dangerfield movie, they canít get any respect, even overseas in Sweden.  As you all probably know by now, the Toronto Maple Leafs held the beginning of their training camp in Stockholm and played exhibition games against three of the Swedish Elite teams, Jokerit, Djurgarden and Farjestad.  The Leafs won on the ice as they pummeled their competition, but off the ice the local newspapers stopped at nothing to give Toronto a bad name.  One paper in particular published a column accusing the team of inappropriate conduct in a local pub.  The report said a few select Leaf players harassed a waitress.  Upon further investigation from the league it was found the players had done nothing wrong.  The team is apparently taking legal action against the newspaper and reporter.

And in more news from Hogtown, the Air Canada Centre could temporarily lose their liquor license after they allegedly sold alcohol to minors with fake identification.  As I always say, only in Toronto could something like this happen.  I know in Ottawa I still get carded at the Corel Centre, even though Iíve been of age for eleven years.

Well folks, only a few more weeks to go until the regular season gets underway.  Does Colorado have enough to win another championship?  Will the Devils repeat?  Can Ottawa finally bring the Cup back to Canada?  Does Hasek still have what it takes to be an elite goaltender?  Was the Mighty Ducks run to the finals a fluke?  All these questions and more will be answered in due time.  Stay tuned for a review of the seasonís hottest video game from EA Sports, NHL 2004, and more stories from the ice as I will once again tell it like it is right here.

 

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