Owners lock out players, prepare to close entire season

Players scoff at pay cap that NHL is demanding


September 16, 2004|By Bob Foltman | Bob Foltman,CHICAGO TRIBUNE

TORONTO - A labor war that had been widely predicted had its first shot fired yesterday when the NHL Board of Governors voted unanimously to lock out its players when the collective bargaining agreement expired at midnight last night.

The lockout postponed the start of training camp for the 2004-05 season, scheduled to begin today, and threatens the entire season.

NHL commissioner Gary Bettman blamed the lockout - the second in the last 11 years in the NHL - on the players union.

"When the union wants to stop the posturing and acknowledges the problems are as real as our governors' resolve to fix them, we will be here, ready to make a fair and meaningful agreement that will usher in a new era," Bettman said.

The stumbling block between the owners and players centers on the league's desire to institute what it terms as "cost certainty" and the players refer to as a salary cap.

The owners presented the union with six proposals, all of which tie the amount of money for salaries to a percentage of the league's revenues.

The league maintains that under its proposals, the average salary of NHL players will be $1.3 million and that the players would receive more than 50 percent of league revenues.

"It may be less than the players are getting now, but we won't apologize for an offer that is more than fair," Bettman said.

The league contends that player salaries consume 75 percent of the teams' revenues and that the average player salary is $1.8 million. It also maintains that 20 of the 30 teams in the league are losing money and that under the collective bargaining agreement born out of the 1994 lockout the league has lost $1.8 billion.

Bettman said teams would lose less money by not playing than by continuing under the current system.

"We would lose franchises and the game would be in terrible shape," he said. "We're out of gas."

Shortly after Bettman made his remarks in New York, union chief Bob Goodenow disputed Bettman's claim in Toronto.

There were no talks yesterday as the clocked ticked toward a stoppage, and none is scheduled. Perhaps conceding the season will not start on time, Bettman has authorized the owners to release their buildings for events for the next month.

The NHL exhibition games were scheduled to begin at the end of September with the regular season beginning Oct. 13.

Goodenow said the union has made significant concessions. The union has offered a luxury tax, a rollback of salaries and a change to the entry-level pay structure it says will produce hundreds of millions of dollars in savings to the owners.

"We made a major step forward, with all those concessions and all those adjustments that we said we would consider and work around," Goodenow said.

"[Bettman's] response to us was simply one thing and has been one thing - salary cap, salary cap, salary cap."

Philadelphia Flyers forward John LeClair said: "We're not closing our eyes to the financial problems the league has. We made many concessions, but the reality of the situation is, it's not our fault.

"We didn't create this problem."

So for the second time in 10 years, players are being locked out at the start of season. The disruption in the 1994-95 season lasted 103 days and was ended in January, shortly before the whole season would have been lost.

The Chicago Tribune is a Tribune Publishing newspaper. The Associated Press contributed to this article.

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