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Move teams north already

NHL spinning wheels in Phoenix, Florida

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GARY BETTMAN is in charge of the future of the NHL and he needs to teach his owners to fish — not just give them dinner.

It’s not as simple as Bettman eventually getting what he wants.

Yes, he has the full backing of his owners and they are willing to follow where he leads.

Solidarity among the owners is far more powerful than it is among players.

Owners can wait longer, no question. They will outlast the players.

Being armed with that knowledge, however, does not mean Bettman’s approach should be to take as much from the players as he can.

That strategy will also fail.

Bettman’s priority must be to fix his league once and for all.

If he needs some help in the form of relief on the player salary front, and he does, so be it. But that’s not enough and will only bring us back to this same point again and again. Bettman needs to solve the issue of his bottomend franchises.

The NHL is broken and, while forking over 57 per cent of hockey related revenue is a big part of that, so too is poor franchise location and mismanagement at the club level.

The league says close to two-thirds of its teams are losing money. The players, who have access to the clubs’ books don’t debate this. Clearly the NHL has its problems.

Fixing them by simply reducing the amount of money players make isn’t a long-term solution. It’s a Band-Aid that will be worn off well before the next CBA expires. Where does the league go then? The strategy needs more depth.

The salary stuff is really quite easy.

Put a seven-year deal on the table that sees the players’ share drop by one per cent each year until it reaches a 50-50 split. Minimal revenue growth will outstrip the drop in the players’ percentage and they won’t see any loss in salary dollars. Done.

The players don’t deserve more than 50 per cent — it’s become accepted as the industry standard — so let’s move on.

But Bettman must fix the rest of the issues that has the league in this jackpot. He’s got poorly managed franchises in Long Island and Columbus and he has non-traditional markets in Phoenix and Miami that don’t work.

Contraction is one solution. Few can argue the league wouldn’t be better with four less teams. One hundred or so fewer fringe players would make for better hockey. But it’s a nonstarter. The league isn’t interested in contraction and you can bet the union is far less wild about the idea.

Relocation is another concept and moving a couple teams from the south to the north also seems like an automatic winner.

Bettman alluded to it in his media address on Thursday when he said the latest burst in revenue growth couldn’t be counted on in the future because the league wouldn’t be able to cash in on moving a franchise from Atlanta to Winnipeg every year. Maybe not. But moving Florida or Phoenix to Quebec would put an end to one revenue drain and add another surplus club.

Fans have been forced to watch the franchise in Long Island go from one of the league’s proudest to one of its worst.

An outdated building and a petulant owner have turned the once mighty Islanders into a running joke. Bettman needs to step in and demand change. The players shouldn’t be on the hook for such mismanagement.

A lockout will not end with the players winning. The union’s strategy should have been to try and get the best deal possible prior to a stoppage.

They’ve missed that opportunity and things can only get worse for them. They will soon be losing salary dollars that will be gone forever.

Calgary Flames forward Mike Cammalleri admitted as much Thursday when he said, "We’ve already lost."

The league paid out 57 per cent of hockeyrelated revenue last season and according to its last offer wants to cut the players salaries share to 49 per cent in the first year of a six-year deal working down to 47 per cent. By missing eight games of the regular season and the subsequent paycheques, the players will have already had that paycut forced upon them. And it will only get worse as more games are missed.

Bettman said on Thursday the deal the league and union worked out last time was too good for the players. "The system that was originally negotiated, in our view, needs some adjustments," said Bettman. "If it turned out to be too rich a deal for the first seven years, we lived with it, but I’m not going to apologize for saying we need to adjust it."

The truth is, he and the league got their system in the last negotiations and now they want the bells and whistles that go with it.

This strategy has been long in the works and the league has known exactly what it wanted. The fact the players don’t want to give it to them only means there will be blood. Hopefully the carnage can be more meaningful than a one-contract solution because this cancelling of games every eight years or so is getting old.

Bettman said on Thursday he felt "terrible" about the situation.

We’ll take him at his word. Now how about some actions.

 

gary.lawless@freepress.mb.ca Twitter:@garylawless

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About Gary Lawless

Gary Lawless is the Free Press sports columnist and co-host of the Hustler and Lawless show on TSN 1290 Winnipeg and www.winnipegfreepress.com
Lawless began covering sports as a rookie reporter at The Chronicle-Journal in Thunder Bay after graduating from journalism school at Durham College in Ontario.
After a Grey Cup winning stint with the Toronto Argonauts in the communications department, Lawless returned to Thunder Bay as sports editor.
In 1999 he joined the Free Press and after working on the night sports desk moved back into the field where he covered pro hockey, baseball and football beats prior to being named columnist.

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