SUN Hockey Pool

Oilers better off in the boardroom

ROBIN BROWNLEE -- Edmonton Sun

, Last Updated: 5:10 PM ET

When you sift through the stack of paper that is the NHL's new collective bargaining agreement, the Cole's Notes version of the document is pretty straightforward where it concerns NHL small markets.

In the boardroom, the CBA - with its 24% wage rollback, $39-million salary cap, escrow clauses, limits on the percentage of league revenues players receive and revenue sharing - doesn't guarantee the profitability or long-term viability of small-market teams. But it does substantially improve the chances of both.

On the ice, the cap has tightened the payroll gap between the haves and have-nots, while cap considerations and more liberal unrestricted free agency has resulted in more players changing teams than in any other off-season in NHL history.

The bottom line is that, on paper at least, limits on what teams can spend has provided a level playing field for all 30 franchises. What success, or lack of same, comes with that will be left to general managers, coaches and players.

If there's one thing the Edmonton Oilers and Calgary Flames - provincial rivals in the Battle of Alberta - can agree on, it's that they'll be better off in the boardroom and on the ice because of the new CBA.

Interests of game served

"I'd hope that at the end of all this the interests of the game and the fans have been served," Oiler governor and chairman of the board Cal Nichols said when the new deal ended the lockout. "This is a process that had to occur to get everybody's feet planted. You look back on things and wonder if the league could have survived if we didn't do something like this."

Same sentiment down the road in Calgary.

"It means our franchise is going to be a part of Calgary as far as I can see," co-owner Harley Hotchkiss told the Calgary Sun when the CBA was ratified. "We knew going in that unless we could get an agreement along these lines, our future was doubtful.

"But now the franchise will stay in Calgary beyond my ownership, I'm sure, and it tells our fans they've got something that will be part of our city without any doubt."

Oilers ownership, the Edmonton Investors Group, needed a $14-million cash call in 2001 just to get to the expiration of the old CBA with the expectation Gary Bettman would deliver the new economic framework Nichols and the EIG insisted it needed to say in business.

Despite a modest payroll, a nearly-full Rexall Place for most home games and having squeezed every bit of revenue from luxury suites, advertising and sponsorships, the Oilers were caught in a cycle of hoping to break even or turn a small profit, at best.

"Our objectives were clear from the start," Nichols said.

"We knew seven years ago we had to get to the finish line.

"We knew there was going to be a lot of bumps in the road. We were up against salary pressures we really couldn't compete with.

"We had confidence our management would take the resources we had and do the best job they could with them and remain competitive. We've lived and died with the budget process."

The situation was much the same in Calgary, where the Flames had the added pressure of making ends meet and trying to turn a profit without any playoff revenues for seven straight seasons - until their run to the Stanley Cup final in 2004.

With about 75 cents of every dollar going to player costs under the old CBA, according to the Levitt Report, the numbers didn't add up. The revenue split this coming season will see the players' share limited to 54%, based on league-wide revenues of up to $2.2 billion.

While the Flames beat some big-buck odds by pushing the Tampa Bay Lightning to seven games in the Stanley Cup final, they, like the Oilers, had been fighting a stacked battle on the ice.

Priced out of competing for top-dollar free agents, the Flames and Oilers were faced with trying to finish in the top eight in their conference while occupying the bottom eight in payroll. It's doable, but ...

With the new CBA in place, the Flames inked Jarome Iginla to a three-year contract worth $21 million and signed playoff stalwart Miikka Kiprusoff to a $10-million pact over three years.

They also managed to add free agents like Tony Amonte, Roman Hamrlik and Darren McCarty.

"We've got an agreement that will let us be competitive on a consistent basis, and if we run it well, we can even get a return on our investment," Hotchkiss said.

Foundation to build

"We've got a foundation to build on and if we work together effectively, and I believe we will, it's a victory for all of us, including the fans."

After years of seeing players like Doug Weight, Bill Guerin, Curtis Joseph and Janne Niinimaa leave town because they could no longer afford them, the Oilers also made a splash in the free agent market by landing Chris Pronger and Michael Peca.

GM Kevin Lowe isn't spending much more on salaries than in 2003-04, but he's not having to try to put together a team capable of making the playoffs while taking on franchises spending twice as much to get it right. Seven teams spent twice as much or more on salaries in 2003-04.

As proven by the Flames' Cup bid and the New York Rangers - who didn't make the playoffs with a $77-million payroll - money doesn't necessarily guarantee success. Nor does the lack of it dictate failure.

"Any deal better than what we had previously has got to be a benefit to the Oilers," said Lowe.

"Is it going to be enough to make the difference we hope it will? We'll find out."


Videos

Photos