At a 'cross-roads

TY PILSON -- Calgary Sun

, Last Updated: 7:14 AM ET

Professional lacrosse could join NHL hockey on the sidelines this winter.

The National Lacrosse League is threatening to cancel its season today if it doesn't reach an agreement with the players' union by 10 p.m. MDT tonight.

But the Professional Lacrosse Players' Association believes the league's bluffing.

"We're not going to be forced into a long-term contract with the owners with a gun to our head. I think that's a big mistake," union president Peter Schmitz said on the phone moments after the league announcement.

Cancelling the season would jeopardize many of the league's 11 teams, including the defending champion Calgary Roughnecks, and perhaps the very survival of the 17-year professional loop.

The league, which also has Canadian teams in Toronto and Vancouver, wasn't expected to begin play until January.

"The cancellation of the season, I think, is a death blow to this league," NLL commissioner Jim Jennings said in a conference call yesterday. "This league is too young to have a work stoppage and I think it would be extremely damaging to this league. I don't know if it will ever recover if we shut down this year."

The commissioner insisted several times the deadline was not a bluff. Once it passes, he stressed the season cannot be salvaged.

Last December, the two sides were unable to reach a new CBA, leading to a 12-day players' strike that ended when the NLL and PLPA agreed to play the season under the old CBA with some slight modifications.

Since then, Jennings said the union has had little contact with the league.

"It puzzles me that they refuse to negotiate," said Jennings.

The league offered the union a six-year proposal Wednesday (with an opt-out for both sides after three) that included, among other things, a 6% raise every year of the deal and increased revenue sharing between the league and players.

But the union also seeks revenue sharing among the teams to address the growing disparity between clubs and ensure economic stability for the league's future.

Unlike the NHL labour dispute, both sides in the NLL agree on the financial records of the league after the union was allowed to have a forensic economist study the books.

Both sides agree the average loss per team last season, including the Roughnecks, was around $300,000 US.

Toronto, Colorado and Philadelphia were the only franchises to make money.

The league and union also agree player salaries accounted for slightly less than 22% of the league's total revenue last season.

The average player's salary increased 13.7% last season to about $13,000 US.

Schmitz said the union had a conference call scheduled with team player reps last night and planned to submit two counter-proposals to the league today.

"I'm here, I'm ready to talk to these guys," said Jennings, who is seeking a long-term deal. "But it's been the same pattern for two years ... They refuse to talk and think that we're going to keep continuing on a year-to-year basis. We can't run a professional sports league (like that)."

INTERNAL MEMO FROM LEAGUE TO PLAYERS

The following are excerpts from a letter, obtained by the Calgary Sun, sent yesterday by NLL commissioner Jim Jennings to the league's players:

"Please be clear that unlike the NHL situation, the deadline does not represent a lockout but a cancellation of the season. There will be no season if a deal is not reached by Friday ...

"Should a cancellation occur, it will not only represent a missed opportunity to take advantage of the NHL lockout but it will cause irreparable harm with our fans and permanent damage to our sport's future.

"The decision should not be taken lightly as it may adversely affect hundreds of people that are employed by the league. I myself will pursue other professional opportunities should the season be cancelled."


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