Commentary

Players have questions for Bettman

Updated: June 20, 2009, 1:11 AM ET
By Pierre LeBrun | ESPN.com

LAS VEGAS -- The glitz and the glamour of the NHL awards have come and gone, but there's still business at hand here in Sin City.

The NHL Players' Association is holding its annual North American players meetings here, with Friday's opening session featuring talk about the salary cap, the competition committee, the economy and a speech from former star Mark Messier about the importance of the union.

But the real fun comes Saturday, when NHL commissioner Gary Bettman will address the players at this meeting for the first time in his 16-year reign. Care to be a fly on the wall for that one?

[+] EnlargeChris Pronger
AP Photo/The Canadian Press,Ryan RemiorzChris Pronger said Friday that players are split on the 5 percent inflator issue.

"I think he'll probably come in and talk to us for 10 minutes and then I'm hoping he does open the floor up for questions, because I think as players we have some really good questions for him," Calgary Flames player rep Robyn Regehr said after Friday's meetings wrapped up at the picturesque Venetian Hotel.

"And I hope that he answers them truthfully, unlike what happened earlier on this year when he was talking about the Phoenix situation and kind of skirted the questions and the real truth."

A little venom there, to be sure. Some things never change. But the point is, the players in this collective bargaining agreement share in the revenue pie. So, suddenly, they care a lot more about the way teams operate and succeed or fail. It directly affects their pocketbooks.

So when the Coyotes are being run by the NHL while the league tries to find a new owner, the players have an issue with that. It affects Hockey-Related Revenue (the legalese term in the CBA for the revenue pie players and owners share).

"We didn't get in depth on the Phoenix situation today, but I think that's something to be asked to Gary tomorrow," Regehr said. "And a lot of good questions about the other teams that are lagging behind in the HRR area. The players' salaries and benefits are tied into a percentage of that HRR number, so having teams in some of these areas might not make sense.

"His vision to put all these teams in the southern U.S. and all of a sudden get a big TV contract, we haven't seen anything like that happen. The TV contract got smaller and some of the teams are in serious financial trouble. So there's going to be a lot of those questions offered to him tomorrow and I think he's going to have to hopefully give us a straight-up, truthful answer."

Jim Balsillie's failed attempt to buy the Coyotes and relocate them to Hamilton, Ontario, was clearly the wrong way to go about it. That's pretty clear to anyone who understands the NHL's rules and bylaws and the way the league operates. Having said that, Regehr clearly believes another team in the Southern Ontario region would be beneficial. Again, the old revenue pie coming to mind here.

"I think the players would love to have a team in Southern Ontario," said Regehr. "It's a place where you'd be playing to very knowledgeable hockey fans and it's a place where you'd be playing to a capacity crowd and where they would appreciate the franchise. Some teams have been put in weak areas where I think they would do well in a place like Southern Ontario."

Two other major items on the agenda for Saturday will be a discussion about the league's drug-testing policy and whether the players would be amenable to a more a rigorous standard. Bettman put the issue in the players' court earlier this month in his state-of-the-union address at the Stanley Cup finals, where he called for a tougher policy and hoped the players would see it his way. The players will chew up the issue Saturday and it'll be interesting to see what comes out of it. The early reaction Friday was a mixed bag.

There will also be an important vote from the players' executive board (the 30 player reps) Saturday regarding the 5 percent inflator on the salary cap. It sounds like the last thing a hockey fan wants to read about, but the reality is, it's a tremendously important issue in the NHL at this moment because of the state of the economy.

A short explainer: Every year, the league and union figure out the revenue pie and the corresponding salary-cap number is based on those revenues. The cap has gone up every year since 2005 because the revenues have gone up every year. According to the CBA, the players also have the right to tack on a further 5 percent inflator on that figure. They have done so every single year since the new CBA went into place. The higher the cap, the better for players signing new contracts.

Except, this year, things are dicey with the economy. Without the 5 percent inflator, the cap would likely go down about $2 million for next season to somewhere in the $54 million range. In addition, revenues are expected to decrease somewhat for the 2009-10 season, again because of the recession. That means players may eat up too much of their share of the revenue pie and fork over money from their paychecks to cover the shortfall to owners a year from now. That's called escrow. It's complicated, we know, but it's the way the system is set up.

Much of the discussion at Friday's meetings centered on this issue. Should the players add the 5 percent inflator, yes or no? It's a tough call. They will pay more escrow if they do tack on the 5 percent to the cap; but, on the other hand, it limits the marketplace for all the free agents this summer if they don't raise the salary cap as high as they can.

"Guys with contracts and guys without contracts are going to look at it differently," said veteran San Jose Sharks blueliner Rob Blake.

"You're going to have that issue every year, especially in a time right now with the economy and where it's at," said Anaheim Ducks defenseman Chris Pronger. "Businesses are struggling to find dollars to pay their employees, let alone advertise and whatnot. So I think until this CBA is up, [the 5 percent inflator] will be a hot-button issue. And it's a mixed bag in that room right now on it."

The league is hoping the players vote no on the inflator. If we had to predict the vote Saturday, we'd say it will be a yes. In the end, no union wants to be associated with the position of not putting the salary cap as high as can be. With the 5 percent inflator, the salary cap would stay in the same $56 million range for next season.

Pierre LeBrun covers the NHL for ESPN.com.