Espo offers up tourney

LANCE HORNBY -- Toronto Sun

, Last Updated: 8:20 AM ET

Phil Esposito rallied Canada's wounded hockey pride in 1972 and, with the National Hockey League at low ebb, he is planning an encore to give the nation a spring playoff-style fix.

Espo committed Wednesday to try to organize a week-long six- to eight-team pro tournament with a seven-figure cash prize to be staged in late April or early May. It would feature a mix of locked-out NHLers, American Hockey Leaguers and Europeans. Toronto would be the main site, perhaps with an American city that would host its own four-team tourney and play the Toronto pool survivor.

"I'm thinking $1 million or $2 million in prize money and winner-take-all," a bubbly Esposito said yesterday, taking a break from a charity golf tournament in Naples, Fla.

"I'd have some well-known captains for each team and they'd pick players, just like in the schoolyard."

He would offer appearance fees to insure a good turnout of star players. The idea came up in a conversation with people he referred to as potential American sponsors. The former general manager of the Tampa Bay Lightning, Espo has a big U.S. presence through his beer commercials.

"What I heard from TV people, especially in the U.S., is they loved the idea," he said.

"The timing is perfect, just when the Stanley Cup playoffs would normally be on. Think of the TV networks, the beer companies and the fans who've had no hockey."

Esposito cautioned the tourney was far from settled, though he expects to talks specifics in Toronto in a few days. He is also affiliated with the re-launched World Hockey Association, and though this tournament could be a test-run for the new loop in autumn, he's not tied to the new WHA beyond May.

After Wednesday, there was renewed talk the Players Association would buy or at least stack the proposed six-team WHA to blunt the league's replacement player plans.

NO PLAN

That was ruled out by Mike Gartner, the union's director of business relations.

"We've heard that floated but that's not a plan of ours," Gartner said.

Bettman doubted a challenge to the NHL would fly.

"If anyone does it, I wish them good luck," Bettman said Wednesday. "I hope they have deep pockets, because we know the economics of this business."

He said he wasn't worried that NHLers could head to Europe again next season.

"I'm not sure why players want to play in smaller buildings for less money but, then again, it's (up to them)," he said.


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