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THE NHL / HELENE ELLIOTT : This Isn’t the Time to Lock Out the Players

What if the NHL had a new TV contract and no games to televise?

The league’s new agreement with Fox--coupled with its marketing deals with Nike and Anheuser-Busch--gives owners a huge incentive to reach an agreement with players and avoid a lockout. Getting a national TV contract in the United States was one of the key reasons they hired Gary Bettman as commissioner. That the deal is with a network that’s perceived as hip, a network that this season took a daring plunge into the NFL fray and appeals to the same young adult audience that is the core of NHL fans, is more than they had hoped for.

“These agreements bode well for the future of the sport. They bode well for people who do business with us,” Bettman said last week.

Will they bode well for the players?

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In the long term, absolutely, because they give the NHL greater visibility and credibility. In the short term, no, because owners are so grateful to Bettman for arranging those deals, they will back him solidly as he hammers the players into accepting some form of salary control.

Bettman already has received authorization to lock out players if there is no agreement. He is a tough negotiator, as evidenced by his stance during last fall’s strike by on-ice officials. He won the four-year deal he wanted, as well as the right to fire officials who were judged incompetent.

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Club officials are not entirely stupid, although it often seems so. Those who want a rookie salary cap threw $12.5 million for five years to Alexandre Daigle last year, and there were many groans a few weeks ago when the Mighty Ducks gave Paul Kariya $6.5 million for three years.

They see the popularity of in-line skating and roller hockey. They see hockey jerseys in rap videos and in fashion magazine layouts. They know the game’s image is evolving from one of brutality sprinkled with moments of plays too fast to follow to a fast, aggressive contest of skills. And they know baseball’s labor strife has alienated many fans. They want to build on that, but as Mighty Duck President Tony Tavares said, “You don’t make a bad agreement for the sake of one season.”

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The plan proposed by the players Friday centers on a 5% “tax” on revenues, including salaries and gate receipts. The players contend it would raise $35 million, which would be distributed to teams in smaller markets.

There is some sentiment among the players to accept a salary cap for rookies and accept the elimination of arbitration in exchange for more liberal free-agency conditions.

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But they are serious about not caving in completely. The players association has issued each team’s player representative a credit card with a $50,000 limit, which would be enough to buy players’ plane tickets home if there’s a lockout.

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Mark Messier’s demand that the Rangers give him a new contract that will pay him $6 million per season and make him the NHL’s second-highest paid player--behind Wayne Gretzky’s $6.35 million--has created an impasse.

Messier initially wanted a three-year, $18-million deal. He later said he would accept a two-year deal worth $6.5 million each season or an adjustment of the two seasons on his current contract. He’s scheduled to earn $2.682 million this season and $2.75 million next season.

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“Obviously, with what Wayne has done in his career and for the league, he deserves to be paid the most,” Messier said this week. “And I feel I deserve to be behind him for what I’ve done for the game.”

The Rangers’ first offer was $4 million per year for three years. They raised that to $4.5 million for three years, and on Thursday--after Ranger officials met with their new bosses from the Cablevision-ITT ownership team--went to $15 million for three years.

That didn’t satisfy Messier, who has yet to report.

“I think we are at a stalemate now,” Messier’s accountant, Barry Klarberg, told the New York Daily News.

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The Bruins are unhappy that defenseman Al Iafrate left camp to continue rehabilitating his surgically repaired knee at home in Michigan rather than allowing the team’s medical staff to oversee his recovery.

Iafrate departed angrily after medical personnel, eager to gauge his progress and plan a rehabilitation program, asked him to skate lightly on Tuesday. Iafrate, apparently believing he was being pressured to return sooner than he should, balked and went home.

“At some point, he’ll return to Boston,” Iafrate’s agent, Rick Curran, said. But no one is sure when.

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Mikko Makela, who played for Finland at the Lillehammer Olympics, is attempting to return to the NHL after a three-year absence. He might end up at left wing on the Bruins’ top line, with Adam Oates and Cam Neely.

What the Bruins will do on defense is unclear.

The Bruins, who haven’t had an enforcer since the days of Jay Miller, have two in camp: Marc Potvin, a former King, and Daniel Lacroix. Once considered a scorer, Lacroix has topped 200 minutes in penalties in three of his last four minor league seasons.

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They also have a chorus line of goaltenders auditioning to replace Jon Casey. They are hoping draft pick Evgeni Ryabchikov or collegian Blaine Lacher will assert himself in exhibitions and win the starting job. Vincent Riendeau, a holdover from last season, also is a candidate.

NHL Notes

Defenseman Viacheslav Fetisov, released by the Devils, has been unable to catch on with another NHL team. His $650,000 salary demand and his age (36) hurt his cause. . . . Ottawa General Manager Randy Sexton said he expects his team to play .500 hockey at home and to challenge for a playoff spot, preposterous statements that only set up Coach Rick Bowness for a fall. The Senators had a league-worst home record of 8-30-4 and a league-low 37 points last season, leaving them 47 points out of the playoffs. . . . Dallas defenseman Doug Zmolek is undergoing tests to determine the cause of dizziness and an irregular heartbeat he experienced last week. . . . Mike Milbury, formerly the Bruins’ assistant general manager, will join ESPN as a studio analyst. . . . The Senators hired former Whaler coach Pierre McGuire as a part-time scout for $10,000 Canadian. Why so cheap? Because the Whalers, who fired him after a stormy and dreadful season, still are obligated to pay him $200,000. . . . Circle Sept. 24 on your calendar. That’s when Mike Keenan takes over as coach and general manager of the Blues. He was suspended 60 days for what Gary Bettman found to be unethical conduct in jumping from the Rangers to the Blues.


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