NHL doesn't want to strike down its growth

September 15, 1991|By Steve Springer | Steve Springer,Los Angeles Times

BLUE JAY, Calif. -- With only hours remaining until the NHL's collective bargaining agreement expires, either a strike by the players or a lockout by the owners remains possible.

But neither appears likely.

Responsibility has replaced rhetoric. Although both sides continue to negotiate behind closed doors, some progress has been reported.

The players don't appear to be secretly putting the finishing touches on picket signs, nor do the owners have a clandestine security force ready to close down their rinks.

Both sides know that the NHL, with unprecedented popularity in previously soft markets and expansion teams bringing the league into virgin territory, is experiencing dramatic growth. That momentum could be crushed by a strike that would cost both sides dearly in terms of image.

The most likely scenario appears to be an agreement by both sides to continue to live by the current agreement, which expires today, , while allowing the talks to proceed.

"There is no sense of urgency," Los Angeles Kings owner Bruce McNall said here at the team's training camp in the San Bernardino Mountains. "We would all like to get it done. But if not, we are going to keep working at it constructively.

"If everybody said one thing [a lockout], I'd go along. But I don't expect there will be a lockout.

"There are a lot of issues on the table. The economic times are not great, what with the recession and the fact we don't have a TV contract yet. The salary escalations have been huge. Some of the owners are trying to figure out how we can get back to where we were while the players are looking for more."

Marty McSorley, the Kings' representative to the players association, agrees that the expiration of the five-year agreement doesn't mean imminent disaster.

"I don't see both sides scrambling, acting like it must, at all costs, be done by Sunday," he said.

But McSorley is confident of his teammates' reaction should he get a last-minute call from the leaders of the players' group, asking for a strike vote.

"I think it would be unanimous to strike," McSorley said. "I think we would stand together. Maybe there would be some feedback to the association on how we thought they should proceed, but I think all the guys would stand together.

"I think all the big guys in the league -- Gretz [Wayne Gretzky], [Brett] Hull, [Mark] Messier -- will stick together. This is not a selfish thing. Everybody knows what's going on. In the past, that was not always the case. Now, the players are all in tune."

The biggest issue, as it seems to be in labor negotiations in all sports, is free agency. There are other issues -- everything from ,, the pension plan to greater player participation in playoff money -- but free agency is the centerpiece on the NHL negotiating table.

"We must be able to find our true market value," McSorley said. "And we are not going to get that without free agency."

It is true, McSorley concedes, that NHL salaries have soared recently, but that isn't enough, he says, to satisfy the players.

"Someone like Ray Bourque is now getting three times what he was making before," McSorley said. "But how can [the owners] justify what they paid him before? Did they instantly come up with some new-found money? Where is this new-found money? Where did it come from? What percentage of room is there for salaries to go up even more? Let's be fair and talk about this."

McSorley says the fairest thing would be for the owners to open their books.

McNall counters by saying it has already been done, two months ago.

"The players are making more money than they've ever made in their lives," he said. "They have this view that there is hidden money, but that is not a fact. There is some paranoia by the players that we have this huge amount of hidden money. They are confusing the arena business -- like the concessions and parking -- with the hockey business."

According to McNall, if you separate just the hockey end of the business, figures show the players getting 53 percent of the revenue, exactly the amount NBA players receive under that league's revenue-sharing plan.

"If you cut through all the [talk] and look at the numbers, the numbers speak to everything," McNall said. "There's only so much money that comes into the system."

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