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Labor talks Bettman's next hurdle

By DAMIAN CRISTODERO, Times Staff Writer
© St. Petersburg Times
published February 3, 2002

LOS ANGELES -- Commissioner Gary Bettman sounded one ominous note during Friday's news conference at the Staples Center: labor relations.

Bettman never said "salary cap," but there was no doubt of what he spoke.

"All our fans, long-term, need to know that at the start of the season, their team has a good chance of winning the Stanley Cup as any other team, that it can't be based solely on how much teams spend on payroll," he said.

A cap is expected to be the stickiest issue in the league's next contract with the Players Association. The current agreement expires after the 2003-04 season, and many predict a work stoppage.

"The challenge for the future is making sure we have an economic system that enables all our clubs to be economically viable, stable and competitive," Bettman said.

He has said he hopes a new contract can be addressed before the issue hits critical mass. Now that contract issues apparently have been resolved for Bettman and Players Association executive director Bob Goodenow, maybe things can move forward.

"The Players Association knows my view of all this," Bettman said. "At some point, hopefully sooner rather than later, we'll reason together, hopefully, and deal with that."

Bettman hit on many points.

He said there are no plans "for the foreseeable future" to hold an All-Star Game in Europe.

A 2-3-2 playoff format may eventually replace the current 2-2-1-1-1.

The league and Players Association will decide after the Olympics about participation in the 2006 Games.

Attendance, both actual and announced, is up 1 percent.

He said All-Star hype has been unaffected by the Super Bowl. "I could count on one hand the number of guests that we may have lost."

OFFENSIVELY SPEAKING: Mario Lemieux wouldn't mind tweaking the ice to get more offense into the game. The Penguins star said removing the red line and pushing the goal lines closer to the end boards might help.

"Give the good ice to the players in front of the net," he said. "There's lots of times where you have four or five guys below the goal line. You don't score too many goals from there."

Bettman's suggestion: provide more offensive zone space by widening the blue lines from their current 12 inches.

HOME ALONE: Dallas' Mike Modano and Ottawa's Daniel Alfredsson passed on the All-Star Game to get time off before the Olympics. But of the 42 players here, 31 will be in Salt Lake City.

"I think there's an obligation," Lemieux said. "Obviously, you know it's fun to be part of the All-Star Game. It's not that hard of a game. It doesn't take a lot out of you. If the guys are healthy and feeling good, they should be here and be part of it."

STAR POWER: It was without checking or defense, but Friday's YoungStars Game was a coming-out party for Atlanta's Ilya Kovalchuk. The league's rookie scoring leader had six goals.

"His skill level is incredible," Lemieux said. "He's got all the tools to be a great one in this game."

"Mario is a great player," Kovalchuk said through an interpreter. "If he said that, I just will try to follow his advice."

ODDS AND ENDS: How important is the Olympic tournament in Canada? Wayne Gretzky, Team Canada's personnel director, took three questions about the No. 3 goalie, who might not play and has not been named. ... The career of Nashville's Stu Grimson may be over after he suffered a concussion in a fight with Edmonton's Georges Laraque. "I told him I felt bad for what happened," said Laraque, who talked with Grimson by phone. "For years he's been an example of perseverance and determination. He's a nice guy." ... The Blackhawks have lost consecutive games for the first time since Dec. 1. ... Playing in his fifth game for Chicago after being acquired from Washington, defenseman Joe Reekie broke his right foot blocking a shot. ... The Kings will retire Gretzky's No. 99 jersey before next season's first home game. ... The next great heavyweight may be Los Angeles' Ryan Flinn, who recently knocked out Columbus' Brad Brown and broke the nose of Colorado enforcer Scott Parker.

-- Information from other news organizations was used in this report.

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