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Hockey Notes

No need for TBA on CBA

Players won't kill deal and the game

By Kevin Paul Dupont
January 18, 2009
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NHL players this week are expected to inform the league if they prefer to keep the collective bargaining agreement intact or, if they think there is a better way to do business, kill the deal and head back to the bargaining table over the summer.

If the players choose a CBA do-over, a few of us, like maybe everyone who has gone to an NHL game or watched one on TV the last 30-40 years, will be tempted to file the NHL with our cherished memories of the XFL, the WHA, and that big brass NCR cash register that disappeared from our favorite neighborhood sundry store.

Honestly, another expired CBA? Possibly a lockout?

Months more of nauseating rhetoric with the potential that Mike Modano might say, "That wouldn't pay for my dog's food for a month," when posed with the prospect of earning $400 a week in the minors during a lockout? Woof.

Maybe Chris Chelios once more talking about, shall we say, his concern for commissioner Gary Bettman's health and welfare? We are not making up these memories. Who could?

"If I was Gary Bettman," Chelios said during the first lockout in 1994, "I'd be worried about my family, about my well-being right now. Some crazed fan or even a player, who knows, might take it into his own hands and figure that if they get him out of the way, this might get settled. You'd hate to see anything like that happen, but he took the job."

A few words of guidance and comfort here: not a chance the players kill the CBA.

Union boss Paul Kelly, reached Friday in Florida, where he and Bettman's top lieutenant, Bill Daly, attended a USA Hockey board meeting, continued to say the players have not made a decision pertaining to their CBA out clause. All the players have been polled, their votes tallied, but according to Kelly the decision has not been made to terminate or to keep on keepin' on with the deal in place since summer 2005.

A few weeks ago, however, Kelly said the Players Association intended to inform the league of its decision on or about the upcoming All-Star weekend in Montreal, and that remains the plan. Call me as crazy as Bob Goodenow, but if the players were on course to break the deal, I can't see the union cozy and comfortable with tossing that size of a rock through the picture window of All-Star weekend. Such a tactic would be so "old" PA.

On the job now for slightly more than a year, Kelly, Newton-raised and Boston College-educated, obviously must leave it to the players to decide. If they vote to kill the deal, as opposed to allowing it to run through at least 2010-11, he'll be tossed into the kind of mudhole that Goodenow, the union boss twice removed, reveled in during his tenure. I just don't see mudholes being Kelly's style, and with the cap standing at $56.7 million, I don't see or hear players angling toward confrontation and agonizing reappraisal.

To his credit, Goodenow produced tremendous salary gains for the players during his combative tenure, but when it came time to put labor peace, job security, and common sense ahead of an embarrassment of riches and ownership bludgeonings, he would not surrender the cudgel. The players ended up with the salary cap he said he would never abide by, and he almost immediately stood down from the job.

There likely are still some pro-Goodenow votes among the rank and file, dreamers who believe they can kill this deal and negotiate a new CBA that does not include a salary cap. If so, they are few, and they won't find it possible to turn back the clock, call for the agreement to be terminated, and induce the kind of management-labor strife sure to turn over the stomachs and seal the minds and wallets of fans and sponsors.

Despite the dunderheadedness that put the game in mothballs for the 2004-05 season, the business of the NHL is doing just fine these days. The $56.7 million cap carries a guarantee of at least $1.2 billion in total player payroll, and potential maximum of some $1.7 billion across the 30 teams. Back-to-back successes with the Jan. 1 Winter Classic have provided a unique marketing boost, one that could help entice ESPN back to the rink in some form.

Kill all that now in midstride? Not going to happen. By the time the All-Star show packs up in Montreal, look for the players and the owners to be high-fivin', huggin', and smackin' their respective xoxoxoxoxox's all over the current CBA. Game on, for at least two more years.

Now, if only we could have linesmen whistle icing calls during power plays.

Hartford wants back in

Hark, what's that . . . a chance that the NHL is coming back to Hartford? Please, say it's so, and turn up the volume on a rousing rendition of "Brass Bonanza."

Reports last week had Hartford's mayor, Eddie Perez, trying to convince the league that the onetime hometown of the Forever .500s would be the next best place for the NHL, be it through expansion or by relocation of a franchise.

"The meeting was to make sure we put Hartford on [commissioner Gary Bettman's] radar screen as a city that is bullish about bringing hockey back to Hartford," Perez said.

Howard Baldwin, long a mover and shaker in all things Hartford hockey, made it clear Friday that he ardently hopes the NHL returns to the Nutmeg State, but he and Perez have different visions of how to accomplish it.

The mayor, said Baldwin, wants to build a state-of-the-art rink (possibly costing $350 million or more) as the centerpiece of the city's stated desire.

Baldwin, reached by telephone in Los Angeles, figures it would be better first to prove that the city can fully support AHL hockey, and if so, perhaps get the NHL started back in the old Civic Center (now the XL Center) before spending megamillions on a new rink as a teaser to court an NHL club.

"I have no doubt that Hartford is a viable market," said Baldwin. "But I think it's important first to prove that support is there for the AHL, and right now that franchise [Wolf Pack] is averaging about 1,500 per game. If it was, say, in the top 3-4 in AHL attendance, then that would be a different story. I love Hartford. But I think the key here is not to treat it as a real estate play, but treat it as what it is - a hockey business."

According to the Wolf Pack, average attendance in Hartford this season is 3,709, which ranks 21st in the 29-team AHL.

Etc.

Vegas has an outside chance
The Las Vegas Strip for the Winter Classic? Anything is possible - Vegas proved that long ago - but don't bet on the sin bins showing up soon in Sin City. The Northeast remains high on the NHL's outdoor rink to-do list, with the likes of Fenway Park, Yankee Stadium, and one of Philly's new stadiums (be it football or baseball) among prime potential venues over the next three years. If it's Fenway, look for Bruins-Canadiens, rather than Bruins-Rangers, in part because CBC would like some Canadian flavor to be added to the holiday punch bowl. A Jan. 1 game in Philly likely would have the Flyers facing the Capitals, in order to give the casual viewers that day a glimpse of the Alexander Ovechkin show . . . All the trade talk surrounding Vinny Lecavalier last week at least put the Lightning front and center as a topic of conversation around the league. That's rare for the embattled Tampa franchise. It also had more than just 890 ESPN Radio talking hockey in the Hub of Hockey. Red Sox, Patriots, and Celtics might have to consider a class-action suit.

Pluck pursuit on Long Island
Thanks to Tim Thomas (40 stops), the Bruins inched by the Islanders, 2-1, Thursday night, but coach Scott Gordon has the Fishermen playing an uptempo, determined, in-your-face game that would have been a handful for even Al Arbour's four Islander Cup teams. Different era, different games, but Gordon's squad lacks nothing in pluck. It's a roster that has to mature, and needs an upgrade, especially in net. The answer there could be Rick DiPietro, but there is really no rush now to get him back with the season all but a washout . . . Brendan Shanahan will cost the Devils only $400,000 for the remainder of the season. At that humble cost, he also would have been a great fit in Boston, but a change of address (he can still live in Manhattan) might have increased his asking price.

Putting their heads together
The players, said union boss Paul Kelly, remain eager to work with league officials on adding penalties for those who target opponents' heads with checks. "The trick is to do that without reducing the amount of contact that is part of what makes this such a great sport," he said. The five players on the Competition Committee: Jason Spezza, Mathieu Schneider, Brian Campbell, Jeff Halpern, and Ryan Miller. To sum up their dislikes: 1. whistles (needless stops in play) and 2. defensive, trapping hockey. Sounds like a group that gets it . . . Headed into yesterday's play, Penguins defenseman Brooks Orpik (170) had a healthy lead in the hits department, ahead of LA's Dustin Brown (159), Pittsburgh's Matt Cooke (158), and the recently sidelined Milan Lucic (154). The hit stat that warms my heart: Ovechkin, No. 6 overall with 142. A.O. smacks bodies, takes numbers, and scores more goals than anyone.

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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