Winnipeg Free Press - PRINT EDITION

NHL deal will help the game

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The NHL lockout cost teams, players and local businesses millions of dollars in lost income and soured many fans on the game, but there was more at stake than 40 cancelled games.

Both sides in the dispute naturally wanted more for themselves, but the real issue was -- and is -- the inability of small or marginal markets to compete with the richest teams, a phenomenon that is not as evident in other professional sports, where pro teams in small cities are highly competitive with their big-city cousins. That has not been the case in the NHL for decades, and something had to be done. The tentative deal to end the NHL lockout will not reverse the status quo immediately, but it should serve the league, players and fans better than the old agreement. If nothing else, fans can expect a period of labour peace for at least the next eight years.

More broadly, the new revenue-sharing agreement could give weak teams an opportunity to become competitive with their richer rivals in large, successful markets.

Under the deal, which gives owners a bigger share of the pie, owners of teams like New York, Chicago and Toronto will become even richer. But owners in smaller markets, such as Winnipeg, will have more cash, too, money for the quality players that are needed if the team is ever to be a playoff contender. Marginal or emerging hockey markets, such as Phoenix and Florida, where hockey has yet to take off in terms of fan support, may also be able to sell more tickets and build a bigger fan base with consistently strong teams.

The agreement's long-term impact on the Winnipeg Jets is not entirely certain. The team is fully subscribed for the next four years, so unlike struggling teams that can grow attendance over and above a larger piece of the revenue pie, the Jets have no unused room to wiggle and their ticket prices already are among the highest in the NHL.

But in theory, teams like Winnipeg will be able to hire more quality players because of the new revenue-sharing agreement that tilted in favour of owners. It's now 50-50, compared to the previous 43-57 split that favoured the players.

As overall league revenues increase as expected, however, both the salary ceiling and floor will also go up. The question is whether the increased revenue from sharing alone will be enough for the Jets to do much more than meet minimum salary commitments in the future.

The new agreement will certainly help the team stay in business, but it's not clear at this point whether the new revenues will be enough to turn the team into a contender in the long term, or merely sustain it as a mediocre performer. Team spirit, good coaching and front-office management make a difference in a team's fortunes, but money is still the final equalizer.

And a decline in the value of the dollar would hurt Canadian teams because players are paid in American currency.

The next few years likely will be needed to evaluate the NHL's future. It might be that too many marginal or struggling franchises will remain and that, for the good of the game more horse-trading will be required to establish a truly competitive league.

Many fans threatened to turn away from hockey because of the lockout and the unappealing spectacle of millionaires fighting over money with billionaires. What they really deserve now is quality hockey -- across the board.

Editorials are the consensus view of the Winnipeg Free Press’ editorial board, comprising Catherine Mitchell, David O’Brien, Shannon Sampert, and Paul Samyn.

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition January 8, 2013 A6

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