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NHL LABOR DISPUTE : Owners Pleading Poverty While Writing Fat Checks


NHL owners, who last week warned that escalating player salaries were pushing them to the brink of financial disaster, seem to be ignoring their own cries of impending doom.

Since Aug. 1, when Commissioner Gary Bettman imposed economic rollbacks to save owners an estimated $20 million, clubs have spent about $214 million signing players to long-term contracts. Of that amount, they will pay $70 million for the 1994-95 season alone.

Among the signings:

--Paul Kariya of the Mighty Ducks at $6.5 million over three years.

--First-round pick Jamie Storr of the Kings at $2.6 million for three years.

--Pat LaFontaine of the Buffalo Sabres at $22.5 million for five years.

--Jaromir Jagr of the Pittsburgh Penguins at $19.2 million for five years.

--Goalie Dominik Hasek of the Buffalo Sabres at $6.9 million for three years.

--Vince Damphousse of the Montreal Canadiens at $10 million over four years.

--First-round draft pick Brett Lindros of the New York Islanders at $7.5 million for five years.

Restrictions on players' salaries are central to the dispute between the league and its players. They will meet today in New York, their first session since last Friday, when Bettman postponed the start of the season until Oct. 15 to provide time for additional bargaining. If no agreement is reached by then, or if Bettman finds no evidence of progress, games probably will be canceled.

An NHL source said the league did not plan to make a new proposal today, but that it was willing to amend previous offers.

"We'd like to see what they come in with," the source said. "We feel we made a significant move last week."

That move was reducing the rate of a gradual levy imposed on the payrolls of teams that exceed a limit. Players object to any form of levy on payrolls, claiming it will have a chilling effect on spending. They have proposed a flat 5.5% levy on payrolls and gate receipts of the top 16 money-making teams. In either case, proceeds would be pooled to help subsidize small-market teams.

Players remain skeptical of owners' pleas that they need sweeping economic changes to survive.

"Revenues have continued to grow. Expansion teams have continued to bring in a tremendous amount of money for the league," said Mike Gartner of the Toronto Maple Leafs, president of the NHLPA. "I think it's a very healthy business."

Bill Torrey, president of the Florida Panthers, doesn't blame players for doubting owners' statements.

"If I was a player, I'd be questioning their figures too," he told Newsday. "I'd see the contracts that keep rolling out.

"Why would they believe? The last time we negotiated with Bob Goodenow, I'd shake my head. I was on the owners committee and every morning we'd come in to start negotiating and I'd open up the paper and somebody would have given somebody else even more money. Here we were negotiating like hell, five teams would open the books to show how bad things were, and we kept giving them more."

According to figures supplied by the NHLPA, in 1993-94, the average salary rose from $412,512 to $503,087. The number of players making $1 million or more has grown from fewer than five only six years ago to 75.

"I don't mind paying star players," Edmonton owner Peter Pocklington said. "They're entertainers. But that does not mean the journeymen should share in the abundance if it is killing the goose that lays the golden egg."

According to the NHLPA's salary list, however, it's not journeymen who have benefited from owners' largess since Aug. 1. They also include standout forwards Teemu Selanne and Keith Tkachuk of the Winnipeg Jets and Edmonton goaltender Bill Ranford.

Arthur Pincus, the NHL's vice president for public relations, said the owners' spending spree "was made in anticipation, and rightly so, that we will have a much more liberalized free-agency system."

NHL players have limited free agency because clubs retain the right to match offers or get compensation in most cases. This kept salaries low until a few teams, led by the St. Louis Blues, began spending on free agents that couldn't--or wouldn't--be matched.

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