SUN Hockey Pool

Oil's well that ends well?

ROBIN BROWNLEE -- Edmonton Sun

, Last Updated: 6:31 AM ET

In poker, it's called "all in." It's the time in the game when you look at the hand you've been dealt, be it a royal flush or dummy cards that amount to nothing, then decide to push every chip you've got into the pile.

It's straight-faced bravado, whether you're holding all the cards or none at all. If you don't blink, or you've got a fistful of face cards, you can win big. If you're bluffing and they know it, or if somebody has your aces covered, you lose big.

The Edmonton Oilers are playing that game as they and the rest of the NHL stare across the table at the NHLPA on the second day of a lockout many fans think could last the entire season.

Perhaps, but this isn't a matter of time for the Oilers, who needed a $14-million cash call in 2001 just to get to this game, that began after Gary Bettman locked out the players when the collective bargaining agreement expired Wednesday.

For Cal Nichols and the Edmonton Investors Group, which is willing to extend its credit by another $13.5 million to go this entire season without hockey, it's not about how long it takes.

STAKES ARE SIMPLE

If NHL economics doesn't change, it doesn't matter to the EIG if there's a new deal tomorrow. For Nichols, the stakes are simple. With the right agreement, the Oilers stay in Edmonton. With the wrong one, this city is out of the game.

All in.

"We got into this to do what we need to do to get to where we need to get to," Nichols told reporters at Rexall Place yesterday. "If we go through another year and it's still uncertain, I guess we'll reassess it then.

"We'll have so much invested by then, I think it'll be in our best interest to lean to the side of going a little farther down that road."

As Nichols told us before NHL governors met in New York, the $13.5 million is for salaries for office staff, management, coaches and scouts, plus other costs like the lease at the rink.

With the cash call of March 2001, the EIG is on the hook for just over $27 million. That's been the ante to stay in the game.

"We were determined to keep what we feel is a very valued asset to the community," Nichols said of EIG assuming ownership of the Oilers in 1998.

"It's a big learning curve.

"At that time, it was already fairly clear that although the new CBA wasn't very old yet, it was heading in the wrong direction. You could see a way down the road there was going to be some troubled times."

With both sides of the lockout digging in - NHL governors want cost certainty in some form of a salary cap to change a system in which they say 75 cents of every dollar goes to player costs, while the NHLPA opposes a cap - team president Patrick LaForge says the message he's getting from fans is clear.

"You said you're going to do it, now fix it," LaForge said. "I think that's 99 per cent of the e-mail, voice-mail and letters we get every day. We get hundreds of them.

"The customers didn't say, 'Get it fixed by Christmas.' They said, 'Fix it. We want to buy into the Oilers. We want to be Oilers fans and we want to be able to win something.' They didn't say to get it done by any particular time."

$2-MILLION PROFIT

The Oilers made money last season - most of a $2 million profit will come from Heritage Classic revenues - but they're trying to compete with rivals spending twice as much as the $34 million in cheques for salaries the EIG endorsed. The "give it the old small-market try" routine is getting pretty thin.

"Fans who are our season-ticket holders and buy our product have been told by us, 'Hang in. Don't turn in your tickets just because Bill Guerin, Doug Weight and Cujo aren't here.' We have to listen to those shareholders," LaForge said.

Of course, the NHLPA quibbles with the numbers contained in the Levitt Report and insists the old CBA allowed teams to control salaries, but that a handful of owners helped create a loss of $1.5 billion over the term of the old agreement.

"It's not in a place where it can stay where it's at," LaForge said of the economics. "You can't watch something as sick as this, that's in as tough shape as this, and be as responsible as we think we are and not do something about it.

"I'm sure if you met with people in Winnipeg or Quebec City, they'd say, 'How come we couldn't fix that? How come you didn't do something about it before the moving vans came?' "

That's as "all in" as it gets.


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