SBD/January 18, 2013/NHL Season Preview

After Four-Month Lockout, Many Questions Remain Heading Into Start Of NHL Season

Wirtz said that he feels damage will be mitigated because of the 50-50 split of HRR
Blackhawks Chair Rocky Wirtz said that he "doesn't believe the NHL suffered any lasting damage" from the 113-day lockout that jeopardized the '12-13 season, according to Tim Sassone of the Illinois DAILY HERALD. In a Q&A, Wirtz said, "Short term there's pain. I think you have the natural anger and resentment and disappointment, but long term I don't think there was any damage because the owners and players are truly joined at the hip now with a 50-50 deal." Wirtz acknowledged the lockout was necessary because "there were too many teams losing money." He said, "I don't know how many because the league doesn't share that, but I know there are plenty that were really having trouble. ... If we're struggling making money in Chicago -- in an Original Six market -- I can imagine if you're in a nontraditional market how tough it is." Wirtz said there "absolutely" were plans in place to cancel the season. He said, "I was prepared personally. I had earmarked money for what it would take to cancel. I didn't know until the very end." Wirtz said NHL Commissioner Gary Bettman "did exactly what the owners asked him to do." He said, "I don't see any difference than what [NHLPA Exec Dir] Don Fehr did for his players. Don Fehr did a great job negotiating and representing his players, and I think Gary Bettman equally did a good job in doing what the owners asked him to do" (Illinois DAILY HERALD, 1/18). ESPN.com's Scott Burnside wrote Fehr will "stick around for the time being, but there was never any sense he was hired to be anything more than a one-shot, hired gun brought in to wage war against the evil tyranny" of Bettman. Meanwhile, NHLPA Special Counsel Steve Fehr was an "integral part of the deal being made to save the season," and it is "more likely" that Steve, rather than Don, will be "a long-term fixture with the NHLPA." Burnside wrote, "Will the fans come back? Probably. Will the sponsors? Sure, if the fans come back." But the game "and its brand, enjoying an unprecedented upswing in the past five years, has been treated with such reckless disregard by its own caretakers that it will take a long while before the acid taste of this lockout leaves entirely" (ESPN.com, 1/16).

A CLOSER LOOK AT THE DEAL: TSN's Pierre LeBrun reported the NHL and NHLPA have "come to an agreement on players being forced to stay home for salary cap reasons this season." Teams now are "eligible to exercise an 'accelerated compliance buyout' on one player with a new salary cap hit of $3 million or more before the regular season beings on Saturday." TSN's Bob McKenzie reported in order for a player "to be bought out this week, he still must clear waivers first" (TSN.ca, 1/15). Meanwhile, in Toronto, Damien Cox reported NHL owners last week, after ratifying the new CBA, also "unilaterally decided to improve a special benefit program for former players 65 and over by 50 per cent." The NHL will increase to $3M its "annual contribution to the Senior Player Benefit," up from $2M. NHL Deputy Commissioner Bill Daly said, "Our board enthusiastically agreed that it was the right thing to do. These are the people who helped make the game as big as it is today. We are all in their debt." Cox noted as of Monday, the NHLPA, which "improved pension benefits for current players in the new CBA, had not committed to increasing its contribution" to the Senior Player Benefit to $3M annually (TORONTO STAR, 1/15).

MISSED OPPORTUNITIES: SI's Michael Farber writes the shortened '12-13 season "would have been a natural timeline" for expanding the NHL playoffs. The league could have "boosted playoff participation from 16 teams to 20." The concept "works like this: The first six teams in each conference automatically qualify for the playoffs. The teams that finish seventh through 10th in the conference meet in a one-game playoff, televised doubleheaders guaranteed to resonate." A 20-team playoff "at least honors actual tradition." From '42-67, the "hallowed Original Six era, four teams qualified for the playoffs, the same two-thirds ratio that would exist under an expanded post-season format in a 30-team league." But mostly it would "be a reward to fans, who adore playoffs as much as they loathe lockouts" (SI, 1/21 issue). In Ottawa, Ian Mendes wrote the NHL's lottery system "has done nothing to eliminate the culture of tanking in the league." The NHL had "a chance to change this perpetual cycle of rewarding losers" in its latest CBA. Instead, the league decided the "only change necessary to the draft lottery was to allow all 14 non-playoff teams to have a shot at the first overall pick." The fix to "the tanking problem in the NHL is simple, and it's called the Points After Elimination system." After a team is "mathematically eliminated from the playoffs, they start trying to gain as many points as possible." The team with the "most points after elimination would be awarded the first overall pick" (OTTAWA CITIZEN, 1/17).
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