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Madden: Next faceoff is for NHL's survival

Saturday, January 25, 2003

Here's all you need to know about how messed up the NHL is: Each NFL team reaped $77 million in television revenue this season. Each NHL team got $5.7 million in TV money. The average NFL player salary is $1.1 million. The average NHL player salary is $1.64 million.

Take a good look at the NHL, because it won't be around much longer. Not as we know it, anyway.

The owners reportedly want a hard salary cap of $35 million when the NHL collective bargaining agreement opens in 2004. The players seem unlikely to accept, especially considering that the average NHL payroll is $39 million. The flight attendants' union might accept a cut in pay to insure perpetuation of employment, but it doesn't work that way with athletes.

Fact is, the NHL's players don't want a cap of any amount. Why should they? Why should a cult sport with declining interest accept a system that works so wonderfully with football, the most popular game on the continent? Sure, it would help pro hockey survive, but beyond that, give me a reason.

The league's boss never watched a hockey game in his life until he got paid to do so. The union boss used to work as a union buster and is generally acknowledged as a showboat and a snake.

This could get interesting. More so than the Penguins' 0-0 tie Tuesday at Buffalo, that's for sure.

If any sport ever needed cost certainty, i.e., a salary cap, it's hockey. The average ticket price is more than $42. A family can still go, as long as they temporarily forgo luxuries like food and shelter. Attendance is down league-wide, in marginal markets like Pittsburgh and in traditional strongholds like Boston.

The NHL will never get a big-money TV contract. ABC is showing only five regular-season games this year, and ESPN has cut its coverage drastically.

The Ottawa Senators have a payroll of $30 million, well below the league average. They put together a team that leads the Eastern Conference. Yet somehow they lost $83 million in six years and went bankrupt. The Senators tried to do things in thrifty fashion, and it still wasn't enough.

Approximately 68 percent of NHL revenues go to player compensation. Yet the players, being players, want more.

Union boss Bob Goodenow says player salaries are set by the owners in an open market. No argument here. But this isn't about protecting the owners from themselves. This is about protecting pro hockey from self-destruction.

If the NHL folds -- and seriously, that could happen -- it will be the owners' fault. Definitely. But I'm not sure blame will matter much to, say, Sergei Fedorov when he's playing for Traktor Chelya- binsk in the Russian Elite League for a weekly wage of a handful of rubles and a loaf of stale bread. Let's see how often Anna Kournikova comes around then.

It's often said that hockey players are the most reasonable of pro athletes. We're going to find out.

Then again, the NHL Players' Association isn't run by the rank and file. It's run by Goodenow, who wants headlines, not resolution. And it's run by a handful of agents and stars whose interests override those of the working class, i.e., Ian Moran. The majority does not rule in the NHLPA. But if the majority speaks out -- and the sooner, the better -- there's a chance sanity could prevail.

There is a lot of pressure within any athletes' union to get as much as possible whenever possible. That drives the salaries for the stars that much higher.

That's why baseball slugger Jim Thome went to Philadelphia for a few dollars more instead of staying in Cleveland, where he would have been overjoyed to have kept playing. Union pressure is why Mario Lemieux feels compelled to pay himself $5.25 million, even though it's really just money out of one pocket and into the other.

The NHLPA labor struggle will be about making sure Jaromir Jagr gets $20 million per season someday, even if it costs 200 or so jobs.

That's exactly how it may work out, too. If the NHL accepts a collective bargaining agreement without a cap, a third of the league might fold. If the NHL has a protracted work stoppage, a third of the league might fold. Bet on the latter. NHL owners will either establish their version of fiscal propriety or implode trying.

I'm a union guy. But the NHLPA isn't really a union. Neither is any athletes' union.

A real union is about a pay scale primarily based on seniority and augmented by rewards for performance. It's about benefits. About helping workers avoid oppression. In a league where the average salary is $1.64 million, you really don't hear the word "oppression" tossed around too much.

A lengthy labor stoppage in 2004 wouldn't make fans hate the players. Or the owners. It would just make them forget about hockey. Faster than they are now.

Workers of the ice, unite. You have nothing to lose but your paychecks.

Mark Madden is the host of a sports talk show from 3-6 p.m. weekdays on WEAE-AM (1250).

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