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THE NHL / HELENE ELLIOTT : Salary Cap Might Not Be Answer

September 22, 1993|HELENE ELLIOTT

Neither NHL Commissioner Gary Bettman nor Bob Goodenow, executive director of the NHL Players Assn., will discuss the key issues in their negotiations to replace the collective bargaining agreement, which expired last Wednesday.

According to those familiar with the negotiations, however, three points are expected to be controversial:

--Teams' rights to match contract offers made to free agents.

--Compensation for free agents.

--Revenue sharing.

Despite those issues, relations between the parties have been cordial.

Goodenow, knowing Bettman has been in office less than a year, is giving him time to study free agency, arbitration and the market forces governing hockey. Bettman, the father of the NBA's salary cap, is trying to to appease players and owners. But he has been sidetracked by realignment, expansion, contract talks with on-ice officials and the taint of scandal over Ottawa's alleged plan to lose its last game of the season on purpose.

Bettman is to continue talks on the players' and officials' fronts this week.

"People, because of my background, ask all the time, 'What about a salary cap?' " Bettman said. "What I believe is we need to have a system that makes sense for the players and owners. There are systems other than salary caps. We've got to analyze trends."

Said Goodenow: "An awful lot of work has to be done. It's going to take time, but we are working at it."

Players see the right-to-match clause as restrictive, while owners think it coerces them into paying exorbitant salaries. To retain Marty McSorley's rights, for instance, the Kings had to match a St. Louis offer that tripled the defenseman's pay to an average of $1.8 million over five years. They then traded him to Pittsburgh. The Edmonton Oilers were forced into a similar corner last year with Dave Manson.

Bettman has stopped two attempts by San Jose to skirt the right-to-match and compensation rules, invalidating contracts offered to Kelly Miller and Craig Simpson. The NHLPA is suing the league to protest his intervention.

Tom Reich, who represents Mario Lemieux and six of the NHL's 25 highest-paid players, foresees a compromise that will impose a modified salary cap but expand free agency.

"If you can get up on the West Coast at 7 in the morning one day and watch (PLO leader) Yasser Arafat shake hands with (Israeli Prime Minister) Yitzhak Rabin, we can have labor peace in hockey," Reich said. "Like the man (Rabin) said, 'Enough's enough.' "

*

When that mess is settled, Bettman might want to step up his already earnest efforts to improve the league's image.

Despite its growth, hockey is still seen by some as a cross between roller derby and pro wrestling. Witness this mention in Newsweek's Sept. 20 issue, decrying baseball's realignment and wild-card playoff setup: "Baseball is marching perilously close in lock step with, ugh, hockey."

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The Oilers' future in Edmonton became shakier last week when owner Peter Pocklington rejected a 40-year lease proposal at the Northlands Coliseum and sent a letter to the NHL, requesting permission to move. Bettman and the Board of Governors will consider Pocklington's request at the board's next scheduled meeting, in early December.

That session, usually held in Florida, might instead take place in Southern California.

*

The average NHL salary, which was $201,000 in 1988-89 and $465,000 last season, is sure to climb. Can hockey's financial structure, constricted by limited TV revenues, handle this escalation?

"Teams are smiling when they sign players," Goodenow said.

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