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Penguins NHL's season begins amid uneasy air with no apparent sign of labor peace

Wednesday, October 08, 2003

By Dejan Kovacevic, Post-Gazette Sports Writer

The NHL's 87th season faces off tonight with three rather ordinary games: New Jersey at Boston, Minnesota at Chicago and Anaheim at Dallas. There is nothing much, really, to distinguish them from the 1,227 games to follow. No heated rivalries. No compelling individual matchups.

But be sure that, if there are games of any kind being played to start the NHL's 88th season a year from now, all will be celebrated.

For it will signify that, somehow, against all apparent odds, the league and its players will have reached agreement on a new Collective Bargaining Agreement.

"I hope it happens," Penguins left winger Steve McKenna said. "For everyone's sake."

The current CBA expires Sept. 15, 2004, and it is accepted almost universally among those in the game that the owners will institute a lockout if no deal is achieved by then. Owners seem unanimous in their desire to achieve some form of salary control, and a few have expressed publicly a willingness to go to great lengths -- including shut down the game -- to achieve that.

Owners claim to have lost a cumulative $300 million last season. They say that, while the league's revenues have increased, they are not close to matching the spiral of player salaries. The average player salary before the start of the current CBA in 1995 was $572,161, and today it is $1.79 million. The Penguins owned the NHL's highest payroll a decade ago in the range of $20 million, and today there are nine teams at $50 million or higher.

The players counter that they should not be responsible for fixing the mess owners created. All that is required, they say, is for individual owners to set individual budgets and adhere to them strictly. But the union also has made it clear that it believes strongly in the open-market system, that any owner who wishes to pay a player a certain amount of money should not be limited in doing so.

A week ago, NHL commissioner Gary Bettman and NHLPA chief Bob Goodenow met for the first time in Toronto and, by accounts, exchanged at least the framework for ideas for an improved system. Their meeting initially generated optimism in the hockey world, but that took less than 24 hours to evaporate. Goodenow emerged from the gathering accusing the NHL of wanting to install an NFL-style hard salary cap and accused owners of lying about their losses. He also took exception to Bettman's public statement that it was their first significant meeting, as Goodenow said he could cite 12 similar meetings in the previous year.

When the sides meet and cannot even agree on whether they met, a year hardly seems enough to reconcile differences.

The only area on which all parties seem to agree is that a work stoppage would be devastating to all concerned.

Although owners would instigate the stoppage, they are worried about the short- and long-term effects. For the near future, the NHL ordered all 30 teams to contribute $10 million each to an emergency fund, to ensure that all can sustain operations through a lengthy lockout. Further along, and more important, they are concerned about alienating a customer base which already has become increasingly turned off because of waning scoring.

Players stand to lose, too, as the Penguins' veterans can attest when asked if they are worried.

"I am," center Martin Straka said. "It's going to be hard. The good thing is, they've started talking. But I don't know what's going to happen."

"I think we all do," center Brian Holzinger said. "As players ... let's face it, we're not only players, but we're also fans of the game. We grew up that way. We know that a potentially long stoppage of play could have a negative effect on the game. We all realize that. Hopefully, both sides are going to work diligently to try to get this resolved as soon as possible."

"It's not going to be good for either side, for the business side or the hockey side," defenseman Marc Bergevin said. "I hope people put egos aside and do what's good for everyone. There will be an agreeement sometime; why don't we find it now and get it over with?"

Bergevin is among the players who could have the most to lose if the 2004-05 season is lost. He is 38, and a lengthy work stoppage could push him past the age where any team would be interested in his services.

He does not mince words when predicting that a long dispute would force him to retire.

"Yes, it would make it for me," Bergevin said of the decision. "What happens with the CBA will determine if I'm able to play another year or not. If I'm not, that's just the way it is. I hope both sides agree on something. Not only for my career but for the sake of the game."

Left winger Reid Simpson shares that outlook. He is only 34, but his 821 career penalty minutes in 299 NHL games make him roughly 40 in enforcer years.

"This might be my last year," he said. "I think that's why I worked so hard this summer, because I want to end with a good feeling. No one ever wants to end and, if there's no labor dispute and a team offers me another deal, if I have a great year here and want to play again ... great, I'll play until I'm 50 if they let me. But realistically, this lockout, if there is one -- and who knows what's going to happen? -- it could end my career."

Players far more prominent on the scene than Simpson could be finished, too, if there is no next year. And it is an illustrious group, some of the last links to hockey's most exciting era: Mark Messier and Igor Larionov are 43; Chris Chelios 42; Ron Francis, Dave Andreychuk and Al MacInnis 40; Brett Hull and Scott Stevens 39, Steve Yzerman 38.

Not to mention the only player who can speak in favor of the owners without fear of repercussion.

But Mario Lemieux, who turned 38 Sunday, has no stated concern that a lengthy work stoppage could end his career. That is partly because he has made it known he plans to play as long as he is healthy, maybe into his 40s. But it also is because he is one of the few prominent figures in the league offering an optimistic view of the CBA talks.

"It would be very difficult for the league and for the players, as well," he said of a lengthy work stoppage. "That's why there's plenty of time to sit down now and to try to rack up a deal here in the next few months, just for the good of the game, to keep hockey on the up-rise. Hopefully, both sides realize there's a lot at stake. That's up to Mr. Goodenow and Mr. Bettman to get together and try to make a deal before Sept. 15 of next year. ... I think the players are aware of the issues, understand that there is a problem and -- at least privately -- understand that something has to be done."

Post-Gazette sports writer Dave Molinari contributed to this report.

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