MARC CIAMPA, a native of Alberta, Canada, is a contributing writer to Renaissance Online Magazine. A student at the University of Alberta, Ciampa is the hockey columnist for Chicago Sports Weekly and the Calgary Cannons correspondent for the Portland (Maine) Sea Dogs.
Travel anywhere in Canada, from Surrey, BC to Saint John, NB. From Laval, Quebec to London, Ontario and even way up north to Iqualuit, NWT and you'll see children playing hockey. In community centers, outdoor rinks, on the streets or in their backyards, these children dream of having the chance to skate as a pro for their favorite NHL team.
Unfortunately, some time in the near future, that may all change.
Not the fact that kids are playing Canada's pastime - that will never change - but there is a very good chance that some day these children will not have a favorite NHL team to root for.
The economics of the NHL are such that it's getting harder and harder each year for Canadian teams to simply survive, let alone compete.
"With one of the lowest payrolls in the league, the major negative effect of the Canadian dollar, and the continued upward pressure on salaries, we're under no illusions about the magnitude of the challenges we face," Calgary Flames co-owner and chairman Harley Hotchkiss told the government during a recent inquiry into the future of sport in Canada. "Looking ahead over the next five years and using league average salaries, it will be very difficult for the Flames to compete or perhaps even to survive."
The Flames are on the verge of losing the most popular player in their team history - Theoren Fleury - because of league economics.
"We are just taking the contracts that are being offered," Fleury recently said to the Calgary media. "It's no different if you have two executives doing the exact same job, and if one knew he was making less than the other guy he'd be in there talking to the boss, saying, 'Is this fair?'.
"I know it's a tough comparison to make, but when you see your peers getting paid that much more to do the exact same job you do, then it comes your turn ... well for guys who play out their contracts and honour every last minute, then it's time to negotiate hard and get what you think you are worth on the open market.
"That's basically my situation. It's a business. That's what everyone has to understand. That's where the game has changed. The players are a lot more involved, they're a lot smarter and the NHLPA has done a great job in informing each and every guy what his rights are and when it comes his turn that it's business. You want to negotiate the best deal you can."
Unfortunately, this tendency for NHL players to negotiate the best deal they can may eventually result in jobs lost for a great number of players around the league. Unlike basketball, baseball or even football, hockey has a set market in the United States. As the Carolina Hurricanes have shown - averaging just under 7,000 fans a game so far this season - hockey is still not readily accepted in many parts of the country.
So, if the Calgary Flames decided to move, where would they go? There seems to be a handful of cities as designated options left. Atlanta, Columbus and Minnesota will be joining the league over the next two years so obviously a team cannot move there. Some other places in the States that have been shown to support hockey in the past have already lost their team, like Hartford for example. Right now the only places left that an NHL team could logically move to are Houston, Salt Lake City, Cleveland and maybe New Orleans.
There are a lot more teams in trouble than four. So what's the next logical step, then?
Fold. Twenty-four on-ice jobs in the National Hockey League lost - and thousands more off the ice.
An NHL team has not folded since the Cleveland Barons in 1978 but there's a very good chance it could happen again soon - and the effect would be disastrous. Perhaps then, and only then will the league realize that things cannot continue on at its current pace.
The Pittsburgh Penguins, for example, have recently filed for Chapter eleven bankruptcy and have lost close to a million dollars in every home game they have played this season. They lost almost $40 million last season. Another team that is close to the edge is the New York Islanders. The arena they're currently playing in is falling apart - pieces of the scoreboard fell to the ice recently - but they cannot afford a new arena or even renovations to the old one because the funds are simply not there. The Edmonton Oilers were as good as gone last spring before a conglomerate of close to thirty owners saved them in a last-ditch effort.
The players and owners alike must come to the realization that this is not baseball, basketball or football. TV contracts in the NFL pay each team close to $40 million dollars apiece per season, and this covers the team payrolls entirely. Even a team from a small town like Green Bay can survive, compete and even make a tidy profit in the National Football League. In the NHL starting next season each club will be making $6 million each - not even enough to sign their marquee player. This need by the owners to spend money they simply do not have is unique to hockey.
A government subcommittee, known as the Mills Commission has been established in Canada to examine the future of sport in Canada. They have proposed that a pro sports franchise in Canada would be eligible for a $3.3 million tax credit on its first $33 million in revenues. Any revenue higher than that would receive less of a break - up to $52 million. Any team with higher than $52 million in revenue would not qualify for the credit.
The teams have been asked to increase their support of local amateur sports and make their arenas available to the community regularly. In addition, to qualify the players on the team have to be more involved within their community.
This tax credit is not the solution, however, and Dennis Mills, the Liberal legislator who chaired the subcommittee agreed. He stated that the team owners had a duty to address the issue of player salaries going out of control but also recognized that doing nothing would result in more of Canada's teams either moving south of the border or folding altogether.
"The easy way out, but I think somewhat irresponsible, would be to just say, 'Let them all go,"' he said.
The ideal situation would be for all the teams in the league to share revenues. The Players Association will never agree to a hard salary cap of any kind and collusion is obviously out of the question. The only way the NHL can continue on as a successful business in the future is if the owners in New York and Philadelphia realize that all teams in the league are of equal importance and a level playing field is the key to a healthy NHL.
Then, and only then, can we ensure that the child in Bigger, Saskatchewan who has been shooting pucks off the side of the barn since five in the morning will get the opportunity to witness a live National Hockey League game.
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