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Rancorous labor fight looms large

By DAMIAN CRISTODERO, Times Staff Writer

© St. Petersburg Times, published September 16, 2002


BRANDON -- If you thought the encounter between baseball's filthy rich and richly spoiled was grand theater, wait until hockey's players and owners try to forge a new collective bargaining agreement to replace the one that expires in September 2004.

BRANDON -- If you thought the encounter between baseball's filthy rich and richly spoiled was grand theater, wait until hockey's players and owners try to forge a new collective bargaining agreement to replace the one that expires in September 2004.

Can you say "strike?" How about "lockout?"

"From what I'm hearing, it doesn't sound very good," said Lightning center Tim Taylor, co-player rep with center Brian Holzinger. "Both sides are prepared for a long battle."

Much like baseball's fight, there is one major issue: salaries and how to manage them. Or as NHL commissioner Gary Bettman likes to say, providing teams with "cost certainty."

That's a salary cap or luxury tax to you and me.

The difference is baseball's players agreed (while holding their noses, of course) that some kind of salary containment mechanism was needed to shrink the competitive imbalance between the big- and small-market teams. NHL players and their union are yet to be convinced.

"It's going to be a tough negotiation, no doubt about it," Holzinger said. "The players don't want to get into a cap at any cost, and the owners do."

Both sides are preparing for the worst.

Owners have reportedly put $300-million into a war chest to ride out a work stoppage. And this is the third year players have voluntarily put at least two paychecks into individual strike accounts.

Negotiations have not started. None are planned.

The NHL has been down this road before. Owners locked out players for more than four months to start the 1994-95 season. It was horrible timing. A baseball playersstrike canceled the playoffs and World Series, and hockey missed a terrific chance to broaden its fan base.

Fans are an important equation in the NHL's finances. Hockey gets relatively little money from its national television package with ABC and ESPN (five years, $600-million through the 2003-04 season compared with the annual $1.15-billion paid for NFL rights). So teams derive a large portion of their revenues from ticket sales.

With the average player salary rising from $766,000 the season of the lockout to $1.6-million, owners say ticket revenues can't keep up.

It is acute for teams such as the Lightning, which, a recent study showed, lost $18-million last season despite a $26-million payroll that was $12-million below the league average.

Holzinger wondered why players should be responsible for keeping owners from spending money. A good question, though with a Bettman-imposed gag order in effect (the fine is $100,000 if anyone talks.), owners can't give a good answer.

Here's a guess. The league wants "cost certainty" to rein in free-spending teams such as the Rangers and Stanley Cup champion Red Wings, which it believes have irresponsibly raised the bar for cash-strapped teams that can't go dollar-to-dollar with the big boys.

The owners will say it is in the players' interest to slow salary growth because a competitive imbalance will eventually diminish the sport's appeal, meaning ticket sales and merchandising will suffer and jobs will be lost if teams go out of business.

Players will say it is unfair to punish them for the owners' conduct.

"Your superstars will continue making their money," Holzinger said. "It's the middle tier guys who are going to get bumped down to compensate for staying within the cap. There are a lot of middle tier guys in this league. I don't know if it's going to fly."

Loyalties also are involved.

"A lot of players fought hard to get to where we've gotten today," Taylor said. "To go back would be a slap in the face for them because they gave us a lot."

Still, with hockey, the only sport among the four majors without a salary containment mechanism, and because of the competitive balance that resulted from the NFL's model, Holzinger knows the pressure will be on hockey to do something.

And it might not be the wisest move to shut down the sport and alienate fans who already foot a large portion of hockey's bills.

"There's going to come a time when how high is too high? We understand that. We're not stupid," Holzinger said. "At the same token, we're happy with the way things have gone, and we'd like to see salaries going the way they've been going."

Enjoy the games while you can.

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