This season's CBA chatter rather ominous

Updated: February 8, 2004, 5:31 AM ET
Associated Press

ST. PAUL, Minn. -- On what usually is a weekend of celebration, the NHL began digging in Saturday for what might be a long, cold, hockey-less winter that could bring seismic changes to a sport already threatened by low TV ratings and declining attendance.

As the NHL's Board of Governors discussed plans for a possible lockout later this year, the players who would sacrifice millions of dollars apiece during a labor impasse warned they won't cave in even if the negotiations last a year or more.

The conciliatory tone invoked by some players during last year's All-Star weekend has vanished, replaced by a more militant stance. The way some NHL All-Stars are talking, they're as likely to agree to a salary cap as the owners are to sell $5 luxury seats.

"We're ready to battle if there has to be a battle, and that's something we've talked about among ourselves," Detroit Red Wings defenseman Nicklas Lidstrom said. "We've taken a strong stance since we started to talk about the upcoming collective bargaining talks. Players are willing to wait to get a good deal for everyone. I don't think any player is selfish and wants to think about himself."

Some players remain hopeful the 2004-05 season can be saved, but others are preparing for what may be the longest shutdown in NHL history. The Players Association is warning its membership to prepare to miss two full seasons, and some players are making preliminary plans to play in the revived World Hockey Association or in Europe.

NHL commissioner Gary Bettman gets frustrated when such a timeline is thrown out, saying talks can move quickly once the union accepts that economic reform must occur.

"Until the union is ready and willing to acknowledge and address the economic problems we're having, the negotiations are not going to progress," Bettman said.

Philadelphia Flyers star Jeremy Roenick cautions that a lockout will be rough on the owners despite the $300 million they've saved up to fund a lengthy shutdown.

"I think it [a shutdown] is scarier for the sport and for the owners than it is for the players," Roenick said. "The players can play in Europe; they can play in different leagues. The owners? They can lose their franchises. They have to deal with the buildings that sit empty.

"Is Buffalo going to stick around? Is Carolina going to stick around? Is Ottawa going to stick around? Calgary? Edmonton? These teams are not going to be able to withstand one or two years [with no games]."

There have been no meaningful negotiations to date, even though the two sides remain so divided that lengthy talks seemingly are a necessity before a middle ground can be reached.

Some owners say they won't settle until they get "cost certainty" -- in other words, some form of salary cap. The owners now pay an estimated 76 percent of their revenues, by far the most of any of the four major pro team sports. That's up from 69.5 percent in 1995-96, the first season under the current labor deal.

"We've had problems, the problems have gotten worse and, as a result, the problems are harder to fix," Bettman said. "But we have to fix them."

The owners' financial crunch could get even worse next season, when their U.S. TV revenues -- already only a small percentage of what NFL, NBA and Major League Baseball owners get -- could drop by half.

No matter, the players say they'll never accept an NFL-like cap that would eliminate guaranteed contracts and result in frequent player movement.

When told Bettman said a hard cap has never been proposed, NHLPA chief Bob Goodenow said, "It was a calculation that came down to a cap number."

"I think the NFL's CBA [collective bargaining agreement] is laughable," said Stars forward Bill Guerin, the NHLPA's executive vice president. "That's why you see the [NFL] owners signing seven-year, $100 million contracts, because they know they'll only have to pay $5 million of it. We want something more stable."

Roenick argues that there are workable alternatives to a salary cap. One example: restricting the salaries of early-round draft choices until they've proven they deserve their multimillion-dollar contracts.

"We've already offered to give back 5 percent of our salaries right now," Roenick said. "That's a big step in itself, to have taxation on contracts or revenue sharing. There are a lot of ways to do it beside a cap."

For now, the owners seems as determined as the players to get what they want. General manager Craig Patrick said the money-losing Penguins, whose attendance is down nearly 18 percent, can hold out as long as necessary to get a more favorable economic system.

"They can dig in all they want," Roenick said. "The players can dig in just as hard."


Copyright 2004 by The Associated Press

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