Players are taking greater interest in NHL finances


Paul Kelly knows that soon enough the Gary Bettman-led NHL owners will be back for more goodies now that they've run over the players with a steamroller in the lockout when they established the salary cap.


Paul Kelly knows that soon enough the Gary Bettman-led NHL owners will be back for more goodies now that they've run over the players with a steamroller in the lockout when they established the salary cap.

At the moment, Kelly's just trying to gauge what sort of backbone the players might be able to grow over the next two years that the present collective bargaining agreement has to run before negotiations begin on the next one. The NHL Players Association boss said the one thing that has galvanized the players' thinking recently is the massive escrow payments that are murdering their paycheques.

The players are have 22.5 per cent of their cheques deducted and put into an account with J.P. Morgan until the league determines what the actual revenues from this season have been. Once decided, the players will then be getting some of that money back, but the whack to their bottom line is expected to be substantial.

"Our best estimate at the moment is about 13 per cent will be what the players will eventually lose," says Kelly, who was in Vancouver Tuesday representing the players, who last night donated 100 sets of hockey equipment to less fortunate B.C. kids. He will speak today to the UVic law school.

"We're finding every time we meet with the players there is more and more interest in the issues facing us and the league. They want to know more and more, and the thing that's really got their notice is the high deductions from their cheques this season."

The more the players learn about the issues and how the CBA affects their lives, the better able they might be to resist the owners' next attempt, which likely will come in the form of trying to whittle down payments to players they wish to buy out -- in other words, to chip away at guaranteed contracts.

Instead of two-thirds of a deal, they'll want to pay the bought-out player 50 per cent, for example. It will be one thing after another, the whole concept of "partnership" a joke, given the players have absolutely no say on how the game is marketed, to whom and by what vehicle.

"Having no voice in that process has been one of the most frustrating aspects of this job," says Kelly, who has made all manner of suggestions on what marketing improvements might be considered, only to meet with a wall of indifference.

With ESPN wanting to essentially gong ESPN Classic and begin put programming on their third channel in the U.S., the network wants hockey back big on that channel, with a view to putting some games on ESPN2 and a few on the mothership, including playoffs and the Winter Classic. How soon this comes about remains to be seen, but there's no question the league's national television take is sadly in arrears, much further back than it should be relative to the quality of the product. The relationship with Versus, to say the least, has been a disaster, although it has consolidated Bettman's relatively narrow power base within the NHL owners.

"In terms of national revenues per season, the NFL is at $3.7 billion, major league baseball is $1.37 billion, the NBA is at $930 million and the NHL, with RDS, CBC, NBC and Versus all in, is at just $225 million," says Kelly. "There's a lot of reasons for that but it's the single biggest drawback we're facing in the league right now.

"We need to make improvements in that area and the players are becoming more aware and frustrated by these problems."

The other problem is hits to the head. Kelly thinks the league will eventually be agreeable to a penalty or penalties, depending upon the severity of the hit, to help stem the number of head shots.

"Quite a few of the general managers were in favour of the initiative but they didn't feel they had as big a consensus as they needed to put it forward right away. ... Putting your team at a disadvantage is going to stop these dangerous hits much quicker than the way it's being handled now [with fines to individual players]."

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