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Kevin Paul Dupont | Hockey notes

Marriage is a happy union

Kelly gives NHLPA cause to celebrate

Email|Print|Single Page| Text size + By Kevin Paul Dupont
Globe Staff / March 30, 2008

Almost three years into their new deal, NHL players really have little to worry about. The game's gross revenues, to which their wallets and paychecks are directly linked, have averaged approximately $2.2 billion per annum since the end of the lockout - levels consistent with where they stood in the year leading up to the 2004-05 shutdown.

During a recent league marketing meeting in Denver, optimism abounded that a short-term target of $3 billion is attainable. If so, that would make roughly another $400 million available (slightly more than $13 million per team) for player paychecks. If you're betting on the rank and file opting out of the collective bargaining agreement when that chance arrives in about 18 months, then it's a good bet you're a longtime season ticket-holder in the lower loge, and you've taken way too many pucks off the head.

In today's game, revenue equals harmony, and it also equals parity (see this morning's NHL standings), the latter point consistent with leagues governed by a salary cap (specifically the NBA and the NFL). If the $3 billion figure is met, the cap will be hovering around $65 million per team, better than a 60 percent increase over the starting figure ($39 million) in the autumn of 2005. Not bad for a league that has never been able to keep a national TV audience from reaching for the clicker beyond, say, the 3:05 mark of the first period.

Paul Kelly, on the job as the NHL Players Association boss for less than six months, invited all agents to Toronto last week for the first meet-and-greet of his tenure. When it was over, no doubt to the awe and/or disbelief of some in the room, the former Boston attorney received an ovation from the 120 or so agents gathered.

"First time I ever saw that happen, and I felt it was genuine," one of the agents reflected a couple of days later. "It wasn't being extended just as a courtesy. My read from the whole thing was, 'Hey, great, we hope it works.' "

Contrary to the three men who preceded him as executive director - Alan Eagleson, Bob Goodenow, and the short-lived e-mail snoop, Ted Saskin - the Newton-raised Kelly has a refreshingly open approach toward everyone, including his employers, agents, the media, and perhaps most important, the league itself (executives, general managers, and owners).

To that final point, however, it should not be ignored that Kelly, as stated upon taking office, recently hired a well-respected forensic accountant whose charge, among other things, will be to sniff out the foul ingredients if the union suspects the owners are cooking the books. Under their prior leadership, the players always suspected financial subterfuge on the part of the owners, which led to fundamental distrust on myriad other matters, all of which played a part in burning down the house around the most recent lockout.

Kelly's position, and message to players and agents, is that he has started out by trusting the other side. That alone is a novel concept in the union formerly known as the Just Say No Players Association. But he has also made it clear he won't be timid if it comes time to object, or forge what is deemed a necessary fight. Remember, Kelly was the guy who led the prosecution against Eagleson, the previously untouchable and nefarious founder of the union, and finally sent the Eagle off to a Canadian slammer. He can pick a fight, provided it's worthy, and one can only imagine how different things would be today if that were the players' mind-set prior to the last lockout.

According to Kelly, the No. 1 topic on the minds and tongues of players is, no surprise, television. Specifically, they want to know when their games are going to be on ESPN.

"It's usually the first thing they ask," said Kelly.

For now, the worldwide leader in sports entertainment has evinced limited interest in bringing hockey back to Bristol and beyond. This week, perhaps as early as tomorrow, NBC will decide if it wants to continue its partnership with the NHL. Given the success of the Jan. 1 outdoor game it beamed out of Buffalo, and that it costs a relative pittance, look for NBC to stay married to hockey.

Versus also recently picked up a three-year option (through spring 2011) to keep the NHL as one of its anchor tenants. If the game's going to return to ESPN soon, it will take some very deft negotiating by the union and the league. And then there is the underlying truth that players and owners may too easily, or conveniently, forget: ESPN had the game before, and really worked at building a presence, but still attracted only an itsy-bitsy audience. But no doubt it would be better for the league to be on ESPN, in some fashion, if only to make itself a more welcome guest on the cable network's highlight shows.

But here's the good news: For all they could be concerned with, the players' No. 1 talking point is how to get their game on TV. Bless their bleary eyes. They are thinking inside the box, literally.

Whether the players ever see the perceived panacea of ESPN again, who knows? Whether that ever translates to real viewership, who knows? But far better that they live those daydreams rather than conjure up injustices that don't exist, or fantasize over billions in revenues that are being squirreled away into the owners' cookie jars and mattresses. If projections are right, then maybe their life is as good as it looks. And with Kelly, maybe now they have a guy who can make them believe it.

Playoff return is unlikely

Following his meeting Thursday with a neurologist, it became official that Patrice Bergeron's regular season came to an end when he was clobbered headfirst into the Garden's rear boards the afternoon of Oct. 27.

Bergeron, who will be examined again in two weeks, remains some 10 pounds under his playing weight of 195 pounds and is augmenting his diet with high-calorie shakes. Problem is, his skating and dryland workouts burn off the calories nearly as fast as he can take them in, and he needs his weight and muscle mass to return just as much as he needs all the remaining neuro cobwebs to clear.

Now, does that rule out Bergeron from rejoining the roster if the Bruins were to go on an extended Cup run? Not necessarily. However, it has taken him nearly five months to feel good again, and even if he were to receive a go-ahead from the neurologist in two weeks, he still would have to start back slowly with contact drills, build up his all-around physical tolerance, and keep adding to his weight and muscle mass.

All in all, tall orders in what would really be a very short period, at the most intense and physically demanding time of the season. The best and safest way to proceed is to assume the 22-year-old Bergeron, who sustained a Grade 3 concussion when clocked by the Flyers' Randy Jones, won't be seen in uniform again until September. Which is precisely the approach general manager Peter Chiarelli adopted approximately a month after Bergeron was injured.

Turned over in favor of new Leafs?

As bad as the show has been here in the Hub of Hockey for the better part of 15 years, the Leafs officially fell into lockstep with their pair of losses last week to the Bruins. Two spiritless and utterly unkempt efforts, sure to send coach Paul Maurice packing at the end of the season.

Toronto, yet to qualify for the postseason since the end of the lockout, had not missed the playoffs for three straight seasons since 1926-28, the same period the franchise changed its name from the St. Patricks to the Maple Leafs (official change came in February 1927). Much like the Nordiques of old, the Leafs showed a bit of a dead-cat bounce, going 12-4-1 leading up to the two against Boston, teasing some into believing they could make the playoffs. But when it came time to play a meaningful game, or two, they wilted.

What now? Maurice, once the Whaler boss, will be perhaps the first of the postseason coaching casualties (figure on about a half-dozen firings). Because the Leafs missed the playoffs, Pavel Kubina's no-trade clause falls away, and he'll be gone, along with his $5 million-per-year salary. Not much more the new GM (yet to be named) can do, other than maybe persuade Bryan McCabe, who will turn 33 this summer, to waive his no trade and start over with someone else. But that's tricky, because McCabe has $14.45 million due over the next three years.

Etc.

Earnings didn't peak
Ted Saskin, according to the Toronto Globe and Mail, finally settled up with the Players Association, reportedly accepting $400,000 as his severance, which works out to about a 93 percent loss considering he had $6.5 million remaining on his deal as executive director. Had he not peeked through player e-mail, Saskin likely would have remained on the job, despite the staunch objections of some players (read: Chris Chelios) who felt he was hustled into the job once Bob Goodenow was given the heave-ho.

They want you, babe
The NHL wants the Rangers and Bruins playing the next big outdoor game, especially with the Bronx Bombers offering Yankee Stadium as the venue. But here's the hitch, according to a source familiar with the negotiations: The Devils and Islanders, upon hearing of the plan for the Original Six combatants to hold center stage, wanted to be included. Until they are appeased - or simply told by commissioner Gary Bettman to grow up and go away - the Stadium won't hear "Game On!" hollered before its last sporting event. Truth is, the right words for the final event at Yankee Stadium should be "Play Ball!" Let it be duly noted, however, that one George Herman Ruth took in at least one Bruins game in the mid-1920s at the old Boston Arena. Hot dog sales that night no doubt were robust.

Top to bottom
Weekend play began with Tampa star pivot Vincent Lecavalier ranked sixth in the NHL with 90 points. Meanwhile, the Lightning and Kings continue to vie to finish last in the standings. The record for highest point total for a last-place club: Joe Sakic (109 with the 1990-91 Nordiques. Quebec won only 16 games, finished 21st, and Sakic ranked sixth in the scoring race. Lecavalier, hindered by a bad wrist that could require offseason surgery, might not suit up for Canada at the upcoming world championships (May 2-18 in Quebec City and Halifax). But Lightning coach John Tortorella will direct the US bench.

Union brothers
A couple of ex-Bruins, Dave Scatchard and Rob Zamuner, last week were named among a half-dozen union field representatives, each of them to be assigned one of the NHL's six divisions. Scatchard, based in Phoenix, will oversee the Pacific. "I'll see every club when they come to town," said Scatchard. "For me, it's a good way to make the transition [into a post-playing career]." Zamuner will tend to the Northeast. The rest: Darby Hendrickson (Northwest), Steve Webb (Atlantic), Joe Reekie (Southeast), and Jim McKenzie (Central). According to NHLPA boss Paul Kelly, the field reps will help raise union awareness among the rank and file, and they'll act as a conduit between PA headquarters and players, as well as media and players.

Keenan's tough approach
Kristian Huselius has had a heck of a season in Calgary, but not so good that he has been able to avoid the sometimes curious decision-making of Flames coach Mike Keenan. Labeling Huselius a "light" player, Keenan recently opted to put defenseman/tough guy Jim Vandermeer in Huselius's spot up front. Keenan told the Calgary Sun he wants "heavy" players (read: potential fighters) down the stretch and into the playoffs. "It's part of the Western Conference right now," said Keenan, noting the emphasis the Ducks put on muscle last season. "They won the Cup. Some people frown on their aggression and the fact that, through [GM] Brian Burke, they just came out and said, 'This is the way we're going to play, regardless of the rules . . . we are going to win the Stanley Cup like this.' I can recall Brian saying that and being a little bit surprised. But they followed through, from start to finish, with the same mantra." Not sure Burke was that blatant, but the Ducks won by mixing toughness and aggression with underlying skill.

Loose pucks
The Penguins got Sidney Crosby back Thursday night (in time for an easy 3-1 win over the Islanders), but they couldn't keep Crosby and Marian Hossa together for the full game. Hossa was hurt twice, and the second hit, delivered by Sean Bergenheim, finished him for the night. The Penguins didn't make much of the injury. "They'll be fine," said coach Michel Therrien, musing on how the two stars have yet to spend any substantive time together since the Feb. 26 acquisition of Hossa from Atlanta . . . The Rangers still don't know if they'll be able to get star Russian prospect Alexei Cherepanov (selected No. 17 in '07) over here for next season. Meanwhile, Anatoly Bardin, the new GM of Cherepanov's club (Avangard Omsk), is now in Manhattan, talking to Jaromir Jagr about playing for Omsk next season (he did a tour there during the lockout). Jagr hasn't had much of a season, and won't reach the 84 points that would have tacked on another year to his Blueshirts deal. "I'm here," Jagr told the New York Daily News. "I know you don't see me in some games, but I'm still here." . . . Lightning defenseman Dan Boyle had a frightening moment Thursday when he sustained a 4-5-inch cut across the neck from a skate blade of Washington blue liner Mike Green. "I was pretty scared for my life, really," Boyle told the Tampa Tribune. Fears have been heightened around the league since Florida's Richard Zednik came close to dying when Olli Jokinen's skate nearly severed his carotid artery. Boyle did not require surgery. Following a preseason game, also against Washington, one of Boyle's skates fell from his locker, severing three wrist tendons. He required two operations and missed 45 games.

Kevin Paul Dupont can be reached at dupont@globe.com; material from personal interviews, wire services, other beat writers, and league and team sources was used in this report.

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