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THE NHL / HELENE ELLIOTT : Bettman Hopes Missed Checks Will Melt the Players' Resolve

October 18, 1994

NHL Commissioner Gary Bettman has taken a rigid stance in collective bargaining talks to date, but watch him get even tougher now.

Players would have gotten their first paychecks last Saturday, and Bettman figures they will crumble when they miss another. He might be right. Players are restless enough that some have agreed to play in Europe and risk injury that could void their NHL contracts. Only high insurance costs and low wages are keeping players from flocking to the International Hockey League.

The first rumble of discontent surfaced when some players wondered why Bob Goodenow, executive director of the NHL Players Assn., needed five days to come up with his last proposal, which was hardly different from his previous plan. The league rejected it last Tuesday and there have been no talks since.

Goodenow has been busy keeping players informed and in line. After several clubs opened their books to players as evidence of their economic woes, Goodenow told them not to believe what they saw because the books had been manipulated. He also went to Chicago last week for a pep rally.

From here on, Bettman will try to magnify players' doubts and bludgeon the union into submission.

He had promised a new deal would include retroactive compensation for the economic givebacks he ordered Aug. 1, but he hinted he's no longer inclined to restore the givebacks. Some club officials said he went too far in proposing a 3% levy on the gate receipts of the top 16 revenue-earning clubs, so he might erase that from his next proposal. No deal he offers will be as good as what players might have gotten two weeks ago.

His lone compromise will be reducing the high end of the payroll levy rate if players accept a salary structure covering their first three years. In his last proposal, the rate topped at 122%. When Bettman brings that down, he expects players to back down, reasoning that it's better to have salary controls than no salaries at all.

Owners have been grumbling less than players. Clubs that lose money can be patient because they lose less in a lockout than if they played. Clubs that make money are fretting over potential losses, but Bettman calms them with promises of salary restraints. Players predicted the owners would crack when they had to issue ticket refunds, but Bettman delayed that by using the term postponement instead of lockout, and avoiding cancellations.

Compared to other major sports, hockey always used to seem quaint. Only once, in a 10-day strike in 1992, did players fight for the free agency and arbitration that baseball players have had for so long. High salaries turned other athletes into overgrown, self-absorbed children, but hockey players were unpretentious and almost naive. The play was the thing, not the pay.

Now, it's just another business whose owners trample tradition in their rush to see the often tricked-up bottom line on their financial reports.

A BUNCH OF CHEAPSKATES

Ordinarily, Brian Downey--a 26-year-old career minor leaguer playing in the Colonial Hockey League--would have been thrilled to be promoted to the NHL. But when the Ottawa Senators recalled him on Oct. 7, the start of the season had been delayed and players were not being paid. By putting him on their roster, the Senators avoided paying Downey's $30,000 salary. Downey isn't a member of the NHLPA, so he's ineligible for union benefits.

That's as vindictive as it gets. If Downey's salary is the difference between profit and loss for the Senators, they don't deserve a franchise. An NHL spokesman said Ottawa would be told to rescind the promotion and restore Downey's salary, but the meanness can't be forgotten.

THAT'S NOT THE TICKET

The Kings claim it's common practice for fans to pay for playoff tickets months ahead of time. It's a practice, but it's not commonly done that far in advance or by a team whose playoff prospects were as doubtful as the Kings' were.

New majority owner Joe Cohen explained early billing as standard sports procedure when asked why the club required fans to pay 75% of the playoff ticket cost by February. The Kings used that money to meet their payroll.

There have been no allegations that the use was illegal, but court documents show that Bank of America--which had lent former majority owner Bruce McNall $125 million--objected to it.

The Kings missed the playoffs and did not begin issuing refunds until six weeks after the season. Some fans haven't gotten refunds yet. The Kings did not pay interest for the time they held the money.

A random sampling of other policies: The Mighty Ducks, who were playoff contenders until the final weeks of the season, did not take playoff ticket deposits. Nor did the Tampa Bay Lightning. The Florida Panthers didn't request money until late March. The San Jose Sharks, the last Western Conference playoff qualifier, didn't request playoff payments until March 28. The New York Rangers waited until March 1 to send out playoff invoices.

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