SUN Hockey Pool

NHL dimwits, fat wallets & little guys

ROBIN BROWNLEE -- Edmonton Sun

, Last Updated: 6:28 AM ET

If it takes an entire season and another $13.5 million to negotiate a collective bargaining agreement with the NHLPA that makes economic sense for the Edmonton Oilers, it's a price Cal Nichols and the Edmonton Investors Group is willing to pay. Steep as that is, failure to fix the economic framework in place now - one in which 75 cents of every dollar coming in goes to the players - after the current agreement with the NHLPA expires at midnight tomorrow will cost Edmonton a lot more.

We already know that price, don't we?

"There's only going to be a future if we can get a new arrangement with the union," Nichols said yesterday, reiterating the position of the EIG regarding what the next agreement means to keeping the NHL in Edmonton.

"We've said for several years we'll figure out how to survive until 2004, that we'll make it work as best we can in anticipation there will be changes made to the CBA. We're here."

As Gary Bettman and union boss Bob Goodenow sit down to rework a deal that, according to the Levitt Report released in February 2004, saw 19 of the NHL's 30 teams show red ink in 2002-03, Nichols is settling in for one last push.

WRITTEN CHEQUES

Having already written cheques for $14 million in a cash call to get this far, the EIG has committed another $13.5 million to see this through - that's the budget to cover staff salaries, the lease at Rexall Place and other costs if there's no hockey for the duration of the 2004-05 NHL season. That figure doesn't include costs to operate the AHL Road Runners.

"I was blown away to think it would cost this much not to operate, but we think it's in our best interest to do this," said Nichols. "If the CBA is resolved along the way, it won't cost us the $13.5 million. We'll deal with that when the time comes."

If Bettman and Goodenow get it right - the NHLPA will first have to admit a system in which owners keep 25 cents on the dollar can't work - Nichols says the cost will be worth it. If not ...

"Without it, I don't think there is any future," Nichols said, talking about revamping the 75-25 revenue split. "It just proves there's a system problem.

"I can only talk about our franchise, but our house is in good order, in relative terms. If you still can't succeed, there must be a flaw in the system. That's what we have to correct."

I'd love to be a fly on the wall in New York tomorrow when Nichols meets with the NHL's 29 other governors. It's the owners themselves - if only a handful of irresponsible teams - who've created this mess by spending like fools.

It's a mess that, if the Levitt Report is to be believed, saw player costs account for $1.494 billion of $1.996 billion in revenues in 2002-03, a year in which 19 teams reported losses of $273 million. It's a mess that's seen salaries increase from an average of $560,000 in 1993-94 to $1.79 million over the next nine years and average ticket prices go from $29.75 to $48.37.

Of course, playing the blame game at this point is a losing proposition. Perhaps Arthur Levitt said it best after releasing his report when talking about the financial apocalypse owners and players are waltzing toward hand in hand: "Regardless of how they get there, they are on a treadmill to obscurity."

Small markets like Edmonton are at the front of the line Levitt talks about, even if the Oilers haven't spent like they've got ink, paper and a printing press hidden in Nichols's basement.

The Oilers have been frugal. The fact is they've exploited every revenue stream available. They've sold every luxury suite and board ad there is to sell.

EXPENDITURE SIDE

On the expenditure side, with a player payroll of about $34 million last season, the Oilers aren't the New York Rangers, for whom the price of failure is never too steep, Dallas or Philadelphia.

Even with that, the Oilers are caught up in a financial fiasco created by the dim-witted dealings of a few fat-walleted owners. The EIG hopes to show a profit of $2 million for 2003-04 because of revenue from the Heritage Classic.

That would represent the best year since this ownership group formed in 1998. The team has lost money in four of six years since then.

"If you do everything you can, goodness, it should work," said an exasperated Nichols. "Yet it doesn't."

Not like this, it doesn't. Not when the Oilers compete with teams willing and able to spend twice as much on salaries.

Not when it means breaking the bank to sign Doug Weight, Bill Guerin, Curtis Joseph and Petr Nedved, to name just four Oilers who've left.

"We've been living and dying by the budget process," Nichols said.

"We've had to sacrifice a number of our star players. It's confusing and it's annoying to our fans.

"Everybody wants to do their bit to help the team exist here, but we want an equal chance to win with other markets. That's not the direction we've been going."

The EIG will hang in for this entire season, if need be, waiting for a reversal in that direction, for Bettman to get it right. The Oilers' alternative we already know.

"I vote on behalf of the franchise," Nichols said.

"Personally, I won't agree to anything less than that. To carry on doing what we are doing is ludicrous."


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