Peace between the NHL's players and owners faces huge test when cash crunch hits pocketbooks

RANDY SPORTAK

, Last Updated: 9:36 AM ET

Since the lockout's conclusion, the NHL's players and owners have been all about unity.

It's been easy because, quite frankly, times have been good.

Revenues around the league have grown by leaps and bounds, and the salary cap shot up from US$39 million in 2005-06 to the $56.7 million it sits at this season.

A big test to that togetherness is looming. We're going to see whether those parties can sing kumbaya from the same hymn book sooner than they originally perceived.

The economic downturn is starting to look more and more like a freefall -- analysts are now quoting figures not seen since the late 1930s -- and it's going to have a major impact on the NHL game where so many feel it most.

That's right, we're talking about in their wallets.

As the Canadian dollar appears to be settling around 80 cents compared to the US buck, all that money from tickets sold in Canada and TV dollars aren't going to be worth as much when the conversion is concluded.

Then we have to take into account the massive impact south of the border. You don't have to delve deep into the foreclosures and unemployment numbers to do it. Just check attendance figures.

Sure, the Chicago Blackhawks are doing well for the first time in an eternity with the massive United Center, and it's the norm in Philadephia, Minnesota, San Jose and Madison Square Garden.

In Buffalo, the fanbase is strong. Washington is better than recent years, and Pittsburgh is at capacity night after night despite the antique building.

From there, the picture is not so rosy. Colorado, which had that long artificial sell-out streak, has seen its lowest figures ever, Boston hasn't managed to get back to an overflowing building despite an exciting team, pretty much all the sun-belt cities are struggling and Columbus is averaging only more fans the New York Islanders.

Those empty seats don't pay for parking, don't buy the over-priced munchies and refreshments and don't buy sweaters, so the cycle spins slower.

The impact of the slowdown on next season's salary cap will likely be minimal, if at all, because it will be based on revenues this season. The big-ticket selling -- of suites, TV rights, sponsorship deals and season-tickets -- is already in the books.

But players best not make plans for their money held in escrow through the 2009-10 campaign. The players received full refunds in two of three seasons so far under this system, plus interest, and more because revenues were higher then expected.

If things continue the way they're going, those dollars will be given back to the owners because players' salaries are linked with revenue.

When it could get even uglier is in the 2010-11 campaign.

If the North American economy doesn't roar back to positive territory in the next 18 months, the NHL could be in need of serious belt tightening.

Not to be too much about the doom and gloom, but what would happen if the salary cap for that season was set at US$39 million?

Take the Flames, for example. As it stands for 2010-11, they have US$35.8 million committed to nine players (Jarome Iginla, Daymond Langkow, Curtis Glencross, Dion Phaneuf, Robyn Regehr, Cory Sarich, Jim Vandermeer, Mark Giordano and Miikka Kiprusoff).

They're not the only team staring at a potentially tough picture.

Just as interesting will be the reaction from owners. The race to relocate franchises is sure to pick up steam. Kansas City has a spanking new building, Houston could be a host, Seattle no longer has an NBA team, Portland has a hockey history, and then we have potential homes in Winnipeg and Hamilton.

Flaming C-notes

So much for that theory about getting pucks on net. When the Flames fired 51 on the Colorado Avalanche goal Tuesday, it was the seventh time this season a team registered a half-century's worth of shots. Yet, the Flames are the first team to actually win the game. The San Jose Sharks have lost two such games (see info above) ... With Dustin Boyd's play this season, does it make Matthew Lombardi's spot on the second-line tenuous? The Flames could use another top-four defenceman, and the injured Lombardi may very well be the trade bait needed. Here's a thought, what about getting Jordan Leopold, who was such an integral part of the Flames when he was here and paired with Robyn Regehr? Courtesy NHL.com's Larry Wigge, Jarome Iginla and Sidney Crosby have seven four-or-more-point games since the start of the 2006-07 season. Marc Savard has had six.

Hockey talky

Good on Craig MacTavish for finally publicly calling out LW Dustin Penner over his fitness. Amazing how much better Penner was in his first game after, especially in getting involved ... Speaking of players not in shape, where would the Vancouver Canucks be without Kyle Wellwood's eight goals in 15 games? He leads the team.

You don't say

"Last year 25% of the way in, we were winning the Cup -- and we barely made the playoffs. You can't give any games away, and a couple of games, we have."

-- Ottawa Senators captain Daniel Alfredsson on his team's struggles (0-4-2 in their last six games).

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NOT EVEN A 50/50 CHANCE

Date Team Shots Result

Oct. 24 San Jose (at Florida) 50 4-3 loss

Oct. 25 Montreal (vs. Anaheim) 51 6-4 loss

Oct. 25 N.Y. Islanders (vs. Carolina) 60 4-3 loss

Nov. 1 Columbus (vs. Chicago) 51 4-3 SOL

Nov. 11 San Jose (vs. Nashville) 57 4-3 OTL

Nov. 18 Tampa Bay (vs. Florida) 52 4-3 SOL

Nov. 18 Calgary (vs. Colorado) 51 4-1 win

-- Elias Sports Bureau


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