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NHL's BOGs put on brave face in tough economic times

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The Canadian Press
12/8/2008 8:50:32 PM
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PALM BEACH, Fla. - There wasn't a single NHL owner who left the first day of the league's board of governors meeting in tears.

Given some of the things they heard on Monday, that was actually notable.

Two economists addressed team owners and executives at length about the state of the worldwide economy during the session, painting what deputy commissioner Bill Daly termed a ''pretty dark'' picture. The meeting began with an agenda that included a discussion about the salary cap but talk of the economy went on so long that it was pushed back to Tuesday's session.

In fact, the governors hardly ended up delving into the business of hockey at all.

''The discussion was even more global than North American or related to hockey,'' said Ottawa Senators president Roy Mlakar. ''It's really what's going on in the world, even on how it's impacted on China, Japan, other countries. This wasn't just hockey-related today .. we have never been in this position in my twenty-who-knows-how-many years in the National Hockey League, we've never seen anything like this.

''And I give Gary (Bettman) and Bill (Daly) credit for having the foresight to know that we should have people who are experts in this industry come in and tell us what they think is going on, what the long-term forecasting is.''

That one thing the economists couldn't really do is offer much of a solution - simply because there is no cure-all out there.

The meetings began at this posh resort with plenty of rumours and speculation about struggling franchises that are hemorrhaging money. Before they could even get underway, a report surfaced that the Buffalo Sabres are actively seeking a new owner.

Managing partner Larry Quinn quickly denied that, but did admit that they have been approached ''four or five times'' since the lockout ended.

''We're not shopping for a buyer at all,'' said Quinn. ''We listen to things that people say to us so I would say over the course of the last three years there's been a number of times where people have called and say, `I've got this idea or maybe I want to buy, etc., etc.'

''We always listen. But we are not shopping the team and right now we're not selling it.''

It's pretty clear that the business of selling sports is going to get tougher and tougher as the economy continues to sag.

While that wasn't exactly a surprise to NHL governors, the extent of the trouble certainly opened some eyes. That was especially true of some of the Canadians in the room who weren't aware of how bad things have gotten in some American cities.

''They went into it deeper,'' said Edmonton Oilers CEO Patrick LaForge. ''Job losses, the depth and the length, in their view, of the recession. It was sobering. I hadn't heard it in that kind of detail, and if you're in Edmonton, Alberta, Canada, you're just not running into a lot of U.S. economists. You get a bit of a Western Canadian view.

''When you look at all of North America, it becomes a little a more dark and deep.''

Even still, there seemed to be a nearly united message from owners that they can't fall victim to fear and panic.

They clearly know it's serious. A league official said the governors considered trying to cancel the meetings altogether, perhaps worried about the perception of gathering at a luxury hotel in such rough economic times. However, the rooms had been booked months in advance and would have to be paid for anyway.

One thing the NHL isn't considering is following the NBA's lead and trimming staff.

''Clearly we have a hiring freeze, we're not filling head count,'' said Daly. ''But at this point we're not eliminating positions. We're just looking to cut expenses all over the organization.''

Interestingly, one of the only issues discussed that wasn't directly related to the economy involved the league getting more involved in Europe.

The owners gave the thumbs-up to investigating the possibility of investing in the Champions Hockey League - a tournament contested between club teams on the continent that is currently in its inaugural season. That idea is likely years from reaching reality, but the NHL is clearly in no position to ignore anything that could lead to more revenue.

''It's a tournament they have over there, the question is where would we be as part of that?'' said Colin Campbell, the NHL's director of hockey operations. ''They like what we have as far as our structure, our history, but what do we bring to them? It's not something (the governors) said no to.

''It's interesting, the owners found it interesting.''

Perhaps the scariest thing about the downturn in the economy is just how far-reaching it is. Even traditional hockey markets don't seem to be safe.

The Detroit Red Wings are coming off another championship season and are selling some tickets for US$9. On Monday, the Columbus Blue Jackets released a plan that allows fans pay for their tickets in weekly instalments.

Even with this year's spike in attendance in Boston, the soaring Bruins have concerns.

''Business is going to be difficult in Boston next year, I know,'' said owner Jeremy Jacobs. ''And it's difficult now. So we have to really take care of our fans and make sure we play good hockey and keep winning.''

The most telling thing of all might be the fact that the Toronto Maple Leafs are proceeding with caution. The franchise is easily the league's wealthiest but new president and GM Brian Burke doesn't believe the team's business is infallible.

''We don't think any industry and certainly no team is recession-proof - it's that simple,'' he said. ''Our fan base and our corporate base are facing the same challenges as everyone else.

''You see what's happening in NASCAR. You can't argue that it's not having an affect on professional sports.''

Bill Daly (Photo: Bruce Bennett/Getty Images)

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(Photo: Bruce Bennett/Getty Images)
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