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Strife might not cripple Lightning

TOM JONES
Published May 26, 2004

Let's say the Lightning wins this Stanley Cup. Let's say season-ticket sales, buoyed by this unexpected championship, skyrocket. Let's say the popularity of hockey in Tampa Bay come this summer will be higher and the momentum greater than ever before.

Now let's say the league shuts down next September because of a labor problem.

Sounds like maybe the worst thing that could happen to the Lightning and this football-first market.

Actually, it might be the best thing that could happen. Because any labor agreement, even one reached after a long stoppage, that includes a salary cap or some amendment that keeps salaries from spinning out of control is good for a small-market team such as the Lightning.

Facts are facts and this is a fact: Each of the past nine Stanley Cup champions have had payrolls in the upper third of the league. That doesn't mean a high payroll guarantees success. Just look at the Rangers. But it does suggest you need a high payroll to maintain consistency atop the standings.

Now that doesn't mean small-market teams have no chance. This final will produce a small-market champion.

But what will happen to these teams after this season?

Minnesota and Anaheim are small-payroll teams that reached the Western Conference final last season. Both missed the playoffs this season. Carolina reached the Cup final two seasons ago and finished last in the NHL the next season. Past Cup finalists such as the Sabres and Capitals went from contenders to bottom-feeders within a couple of years.

The Lightning, just to maintain this current group in the current structure, will have to add at least $10-million to the payroll.

Lightning owner Bill Davidson isn't suddenly going to pull money from under his mattress for a high payroll. The Lightning's attitude toward payroll isn't going to change. Its only hope is that the league's payroll structure does.

Will it? That's not certain. What does seem certain is the NHL appears headed for a work stoppage.

Commissioner Gary Bettman said the two sides met Tuesday in Tampa for about four hours. Bettman said any dialogue is good - meaning good dialogue might be nothing more than he and union chief Bob Goodenow agreeing on potato skins for an appetizer.

But they are no closer to an agreement on the major issue: how to divide a pot of gold worth about $2-billion. The NHL claims 19 teams lost $340-million and the owners, as a whole, lost a total of $270-million. The players don't buy those figures and aren't about to give in to a hard salary cap.

The owners seem intent on having one.

Neither side appears to be backing down. In his toughest talk to date Tuesday, Bettman said the owners are not bluffing about their willingness to lock the players out when the CBA expires.

"I don't doubt the players' resolve, but nobody should doubt the owners' resolve," Bettman said. "If this is a test to see if the owners really mean it, it's a shame to have to go through all the hardship that will entail to simply prove a point."

There will be hardship. A work stoppage, obviously, would not be good for the sport. And it would not be good for the Stanley Cup champion Lightning or Stanley Cup champion Flames, whichever.

But the hardship of the short-term will be better than the long-range future of the Lightning under the current structure.

- On the Fly focuses on people, events and scenes around the game.

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