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HELENE ELLIOTT / ON THE NHL

Contraction might be something to consider for NHL Commissioner Gary Bettman

Several teams are dealing with ownership or financial issues, and negotiations leading up to the June 30 expiration of the NBA collective bargaining agreement will give hockey fans an idea of what to expect in 2012.

October 25, 2010|Helene Elliott

From Denver — NBA Commissioner David Stern's comments about his goals in his league's labor negotiations with players sounded familiar to hockey observers.

Cut back salaries by up to a third? Been there, taken 24% off that in the collective bargaining agreement that followed the canceled 2004-05 season.

Instituting a hard salary cap? Got one in the last labor deal and it's more rigid than the NBA's version.

The NBA cap has ample wiggle room, like the Larry Bird exception for teams to re-sign their own players. The NHL's collective bargaining agreement, which expires after the 2011-12 season, allows for burying players in the minor leagues to get salaries off the cap payroll, but there are few other escape hatches since long-term, diminishing-returns contracts were curbed after the Ilya Kovalchuk free-agent farce.

Stern, who mentored NHL Commissioner Gary Bettman, also threw out an idea Bettman has shunned but might have to consider as an option or bargaining chip:

Contraction.

"It's a sensitive subject for me because I've spent 27 years in this job working very hard not only to maintain all of our teams, but along the way add a few," Stern said last week during a preseason conference call.

"But I think that's a subject that will be on the table with the players as we look to see what's the optimum way to present our game, and are there cities and teams that cannot make it in the current economic environment."

The same is true for the NHL. The league still operates the Phoenix Coyotes, though a prospective owner emerged in Chicago businessman Matthew Hulsizer. If he thinks he can make it work there after the team drew 6,706 last Wednesday and 8,189 on Saturday, good luck to him.

There are ownership problems in Atlanta, in Dallas, where Tom Hicks has defaulted on loans and had to break up his sports empire, and in St. Louis, where the private equity firm that owns about 75% of the Blues has been trying to sell its stake since last spring.

Where ownership is stable, finances have not been. The Chicago Blackhawks claim to have lost money while winning the Stanley Cup last season. Ducks owners Henry and Susan Samueli say they've lost double-digit millions since they bought the franchise in 2005, and they're not alone.

Bettman's strength has been attracting corporate sponsorship, and league revenues topped $2.7 billion last season. But the NHL is still largely gate-driven, and attendance hit franchise-record lows of 9,802 last week in Columbus and 8,820 in Atlanta.

According to espn.com, through the weekend six teams had announced above-capacity attendance and six announced 100% capacity, but eight had announced crowds that were below 80% of capacity and two were between 80% and 90%. The NHL counts tickets distributed, not tickets bought or bodies in seats. The Coyotes are believed to have fewer than 5,000 season-ticket holders. Columbus is down to about 7,500.

NHL attendance traditionally increases around midseason and can go in cycles. In non-Canadian cities, a good team will generally draw better than a bad one, though Colorado had difficulty last season and continues to struggle at the box office.

But there's enough of an argument here for Bettman to put contraction on the table. Owners of prosperous teams would love it: they wouldn't have to subsidize small-market teams and could keep greater shares of TV and advertising dollars. It would also put Donald Fehr, the incoming executive director of the NHL Players Assn., in a tough spot. Should he fight to keep jobs or for overall stability? Or can both exist?

Negotiations leading up to the June 30 expiration of the NBA collective bargaining agreement will give hockey fans a preview of what to expect in 2012.

Having a Devil of a time

Speculation is that Kovalchuk, the $100-million New Jersey Devils winger, missed a meeting or violated a team policy before Coach John MacLean held him out of the lineup Saturday. It otherwise makes no sense for the NHL's lowest-scoring team to scratch the two-time 50-goal scorer whose contract put them in a salary-cap vise. Kovalchuk returned Sunday and scored the Devils' only goal in a 3-1 loss to the New York Rangers.

General Manager Lou Lamoriello backed MacLean, but if coach and player continue to butt heads one will be gone — and it won't be Kovalchuk.

helene.elliott@latimes.com

twitter.com/helenenothelen

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