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NHL commissioner Gary Bettman's TV policy may finally be paying off. (CARLO ALLEGRI/REUTERS)
NHL commissioner Gary Bettman's TV policy may finally be paying off. (CARLO ALLEGRI/REUTERS)

NHL ownership stance appears off-balance Add to ...

The opposition of the NHL owners to the players’ request of increased revenue sharing as a solution to the league’s economic woes is puzzling.

By their own admission, the owners need each other to have a healthy league – they are so stubborn about keeping the Phoenix Coyotes from moving, they have paid the team’s bills for three years – but they seem to have no interest in creating a system that would insure the NHL gets healthy and stays that way.

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Ownership’s insistence that taking money from the players is only the way to fix money problems in anywhere from 12 to 15 cities makes no sense when you consider how these guys built the current league.

At one time, the owners thought 30 teams was the best thing for the NHL.

Gary Bettman became league commissioner in February of 1993, because he sold the owners an expansion plan to finally capture that elusive rich television contract from an American network.

The idea was to expand into non-traditional markets such as the U.S. Sun Belt, targeting good TV markets in order to chase that network money. Over the next eight years, some teams moved south from Canada (and a couple of U.S. cities) and others were added for admission fees ranging from $50-million to $80-million (U.S.), which the owners gleefully split among themselves.

It took a while, but that TV plan is starting to pay off. If the NHL owners ever decide to end the lockout, they can open the first season under their new contract with NBC, which pays $200-million a year for 10 years.

One would think if ownership was so eager to take the expansion owners’ money and talk up the idea of expanding the NHL’s “footprint” around North America (to use Bettman’s term), it just might think it’s important enough to help its members out in times of trouble.

NHL Players’ Association executive director Donald Fehr wonders about that, too.

“So, the question is: Are the higher revenue teams going to be willing to help out, in whole or meaningful part, the weaker teams?” Fehr told Jeff Blair of The Globe and Mail last week. “You have to remember that if you get to be a team in the NHL, you didn’t just decide to set up shop and join the league. Somebody had to agree that you could have a franchise, they had to agree on the purchase price, where you’re going to be, what the circumstances are … what your capital requirements would be and what your lending limits will be.

“They all have responsibility for one another.”

Of course, if the owners really wanted to do what is best for everyone they would sit down and deal with their problem children franchises instead of paying with the NHL’s line of credit and hoping to get it back from the local taxpayers or someone crazy enough to buy the team. (That’s how the league’s bill for the Phoenix Coyotes grew to well north of $200-million.)

Fehr and the players wonder about that, too.

If the owners are too stubborn to admit defeat in one city and keep pouring millions down the drain when that team could be profitable elsewhere, how is that the players’ fault?

And why should they be expected to pay for it?

But, 11 years after the last of that easy expansion money rolled in, the owners say they can’t do business under the system (hard salary cap tied to league revenue) they gave up the 2004-05 season to create. Too many teams can’t afford even the salary floor because the overall revenue numbers are skewed by the enormous profits of the 10 or so richest teams.

However, none of those rich owners are willing to spread around that disproportionate wealth – even though they need those other teams for what the television executives call programming. Someone has to be the other team when the fans buy tickets for the home team or tune in to watch their heroes.

Maybe, with a little help, some of those other teams just might make some headway in their own markets. And maybe where it’s obvious hockey is never going to sell, a team could be moved to where that’s possible.

And maybe, a cynic will say, pigs will fly.

Follow on Twitter: @dshoalts

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