SUN Hockey Pool

Loonie to the rescue

AL STRACHAN -- Toronto Sun

, Last Updated: 8:29 AM ET

SCOTTSDALE -- Once again, Canada has saved the National Hockey League.

There may be a bit of poetic licence in play there, but it is the strong Canadian attendance, combined with the strong Canadian dollar, that has spearheaded the NHL's resurgence, a resurgence that probably will result in an increased salary cap next season.

SENSE OF OPTIMISM

As a result, when NHL commissioner Gary Bettman and NHL Players Association executive director Ted Saskin met here yesterday, they did so amid a sense of optimism for the league.

"I think there's a recognition by people at the team level," Bettman said, "that we now have the foundation, and that the game can, and will, be healthy and that we can move forward."

When Saskin addressed the NHL's board of governors last night, it marked a watershed moment in the NHL's history. Saskin's predecessor, Bob Goodenow, had an adversarial relationship with the owners and never attended a governors meeting.

"Let me make one thing clear," Saskin said, "and that is the players have always been concerned about having a great game and that's nothing foreign.

"And similarly, the players have always been concerned about doing everything they can to grow the sport and be great ambassadors -- as I think they have been for decades.

"So I don't think there's anything new in that regard. The invitation (from Bettman) is obviously new and it's an opportunity to share thoughts and perspectives and that' welcomed. It's why I'm here."

Platitudes aside, both Bettman and Saskin are riding high at the moment.

Bettman can tell his governors that league revenues have out-stripped projections, and Saskin can tell his players that the much-hated escrow payments may be partially refunded.

Although neither was providing specific figures, it seems clear from not-for-attribution comments by governors here that the NHL's revenue projections of $1.8 billion almost certainly will be low.

Revenues already are up, and historically, NHL attendance picks up after the new year.

Bettman has to do some nifty stickhandling when addressing that point. On the one hand, he has to appear happy about the situation. On the other hand, he has to admit that his projections -- and his frequent dire predictions of the damage the players had done to game by being locked out by the owners -- were wrong.

"I'm not surprised," he said when asked about the increased revenues. "This is what we believed could be the best case. The timing of when we came back was going to dictate that. There was uncertainty, so I'm not going to say that we knew it all along. That would be an overstatement. But coming out of the uncertainty, we were hoping that if we put all the pieces together the way they ultimately came together, that it could be this good, this quick. But again, if you look at other sports and the track record, this I guess cuts against the grain."

From the embattled Saskin's point of view, any news of increased revenues has to be well received. Much of the dissension within the NHLPA is the result of players feeling that they have lost too much of their salaries as a result of the CBA that Saskin negotiated.

HEADY TIMES

But it now appears likely that league revenues will exceed $1.9 billion -- thanks in part to an extra $40-$50 million provided by the strong Canadian dollar. If that's the case, the 12% escrow that is being deducted from players' paychecks will drop to 6.7%.

If revenues hit $2 billion, the escrow rate would drop to 1.2%.

But that's a bit too much to ask, even in these heady times.


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