SUN Hockey Pool

Worth the wait?

ROBIN BROWNLEE -- Edmonton Sun

, Last Updated: 7:39 AM ET

It took the better part of seven years and a $14-million cash call to get here, but Edmonton Oilers governor and chairman Cal Nichols sounds like a man who believes the wait was worth it.

Nichols, who will cast the Oilers' vote on the tentative collective bargaining agreement reached with the NHLPA yesterday, won't see the fine print until he arrives in New York tomorrow. But he's optimistic the short-term pain that was the lockout of 2004-05 will be worth the long-term gain in ensuring the viability of his team in a new NHL landscape.

"Hopefully, this is it," Nichols said yesterday from Hawaii.

"There's some issues we'll need to see about taxing and revenue sharing, but I think it's what we've been waiting for. We're in the ball park."

Having taken ownership of the Oilers with the Edmonton Investors Group in 1998, with Peter Pocklington's financial empire in ruins and the team on the verge of leaving town, Nichols and the EIG have been biding their time and dipping into their pockets - the cash call came in 2001 - waiting for the expiration of the old CBA.

After becoming the first major sports league to lose an entire season to a labour dispute, the big economic correction is here in the form of a six-year agreement that calls for a $39-million salary cap, a 24% rollback in salaries and an increased share of revenues for owners.

DEVIL IN THE DETAILS?

Unless there's some devil in the details, which will be examined at great length by Nichols, president Patrick LaForge, GM Kevin Lowe and assistant-GM Scott Howson in New York tomorrow, the economic framework will make the Oilers not only competitive on the ice, but profitable on the bottom line.

Nichols says the Oilers lost money in six of eight years since the EIG took over going into the lockout. The Oilers turned a modest profit in 2003-04 because of revenues from the Heritage Classic, but it's a been a fine line between a small profit and red ink despite excellent attendance, sold-out advertising and a payroll that would have been about $33.5 million for the 2004-05 season.

"As a business over the last few years, we've been operating with salaries in the low $30-million range, operating at 98% capacity in attendance and, even with that, we're just at plus-or-minus at the break-even point, even with holding outdoor games," LaForge said.

"We've been anticipating this," Nichols added. "That's why we've been planning to do business as normal this year. It's just been a process that we've had to go through. Sometimes you have to take one step back to go two steps forward."

The tentative deal leaves more of a margin for profit - the Oilers should come in with a payroll of about $33 million next season.

And it should put an end to the parade of players like Doug Weight, Bill Guerin, Janne Niinimaa and Curtis Joseph who were traded as salary dumps or left via free agency for greener pastures.

Likewise, with only about $13 million committed to contracts for 2005-06 after the rollback, Lowe won't be handcuffed when it comes to pursuing free agents this summer. Even with a handful of players to sign, Lowe could have $10 million or more to land a couple of big names.

COMPETITIVE BALANCE

"It allows for the competitive balance we've been seeking," Nichols said. "If everything that we're hearing is what it actually is, I think this could be the solution that we've been seeking."

Nichols will return from New York Saturday and run the agreement past his nine other EIG board members and the rest of the ownership group before returning to Manhattan next Thursday to cast his vote.

"If this (agreement) has everything in it that I'm expecting it does, I'd say 'Probably,' " Nichols said, when asked if he'll vote to ratify the deal. "I just can't say ahead of time."


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