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Tampa Bay Lightning

As sides dig in, hockey is about to freeze

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Published:   |   Updated: March 18, 2013 at 12:55 PM
BRANDON -

The sounds of hockey started to stir around the Ice Sports Forum in recent days as Tampa Bay Lightning players assembled in preparation for the start of training camp.

Those sounds – the swish of steel blades cutting across the ice, pucks pounding off end boards, buzzers blaring – appear set to go silent. And when they will strike up again is anybody's guess.

For the third time in the past 18 years, the National Hockey League is set to lock out its players unless a new collective bargaining agreement can be reached by midnight tonight, when the current deal between the league and NHL Players' Association will expire.

Both sides, it seems, are willing to jeopardize the unprecedented gains in popularity and increased television ratings the league has enjoyed in the seven seasons since the NHL's last work stoppage, when the 2004-05 season was lost. In Tampa, especially, where new ownership has invigorated the fan base, the sounds of silence could prove a costly setback for everybody involved with a game that has undergone a strong resurgence the past few seasons.

"It's very concerning,'' Lightning all-star forward Marty St. Louis said of the pending lockout. "We have so much momentum right now as a league and we've gained that momentum back. It didn't happen over night.''

The league and players' association exchanged proposals and ideas this week, but as of Friday remained far enough apart that any sort of 11th hour deal to save the start of training camps next week seems unlikely.

Tampa Bay is scheduled to open camp on Friday, with the season-opening game at Florida on Oct. 13.

For now, the picture painted by both sides is grim.

"We are not prepared to open another season until we have a new collective bargaining agreement,'' NHL Commissioner Gary Bettman said after Thursday's board of governors meeting.

Should a lockout be imposed at 12:01 a.m. Sunday, it will mark the third time under Bettman's watch the league locks out its players.

The 1994-95 lockout lasted three months and shortened the season from 84 games to 48. The 2004-05 season, the one after Tampa Bay's 2004 Stanley Cup championship, was canceled after a nine-month stalemate. Eventually, an agreement was reached that implemented a salary cap system and an immediate 24-percent rollback on player salaries, seen at the time as a convincing win for the owners after months of bitter public comments.

While the current negotiations do not have the same contentious feel, when a new deal will be reached is unclear. Unless the gap in their differences about how to distribute revenues in a $3.3 billion industry can be bridged, each side likely will remain in its respective corner waiting for the other to take the first step.

"The way things have been going lately is not great,'' Lightning all-star center Steven Stamkos said. "It's something that we will all have to deal with whatever the outcome is and we have to stay prepared like it will be a positive one and it will end'' before training camps open.

That seems unlikely at this point. Neither side appears willing to start negotiating off the other side's framework. The owners are looking to drop the salary cap ceiling from its current $70.2 million to $58 million and calling for an immediate rollback in player salaries on existing signed contracts.

The players association, led by executive director Don Fehr – who led the baseball player's association during the 1994 player strike that led to the cancelation of the World Series – are looking to implement a form of revenue sharing that would see some revenue generated by large market teams funneled to smaller market teams that are struggling financially. The union's proposal also maintains the players' share of league- generated revenue.

But if a shutdown of any kind cancels regular-season games, both sides stand to lose millions of dollars.

The league managed to recover from the 2004-05 lockout that wiped out the entire season, with revenues growing more than $1 billion since 2005. Thanks to a national television contract with NBC, ratings continue to climb.

A work stoppage might derail that momentum.

Though fans came back to the game in droves over the past seven seasons, they might be less willing to spend money on tickets, jerseys or other paraphernalia during another lockout.

"There are a lot of markets that it's going to disrupt,'' said new Lightning wing B.J. Crombeen, who has been active on the NHLPA negotiating committee.

"It's something that I don't think any player or any owner wants to see. It's a bad thing for the game. It's bad for each individual team. People put a lot of work into helping grow the game and it's something that we don't want to stop, we want to help continue to grow.''

In Tampa, where owner Jeff Vinik stimulated the fan base with nearly $50 million in arena improvements and saw season-ticket sales double in the past two seasons, another lockout could turn away fans. A fan protest outside the Forum is planned for today from noon to 3 p.m.

Vinik declined to comment on the labor situation, as owners are under a league-imposed gag order. According to league by-laws, only Bettman and deputy commissioner Bill Daly are allowed to speak on behalf of the league regarding negotiations.

But the potential damage to those who support the Lightning locally is not lost in this situation.

"With the fan base that we have, the way it's been the past two years it's been amazing here,'' Lightning captain Vinny Lecavalier said.

"For a potential lockout, it's sad for the fans that are supporting us, that want us to win and want us to do well, for something like that to happen. And as a player, we want to play. …We want to start the season.''

The fans might not be the only ones who lose out if the Forum sits empty for any length of time. Local taxpayers could take a hit, as well.

Each single-game ticket sold at the Forum includes a surcharge that provides 25 cents to the city of Tampa and 50 cents to Hillsborough County.

Some of that revenue helps pay down the debt accrued from the bonds used to build the arena. With last season's average attendance of 18,468 for 41 hockey games, that could be around $9,234 per game generated from the surcharge.

According to Bonnie Wise, Hillsborough County Chief Financial Administrator, about half of the $300,000 the county pays toward the bond each year comes from money generated by the ticket surcharge at the Forum. If the season was canceled and all 41 dates lost, it would put a strain on county coffers.

"If the entire season was lost and they did not play all year, we would have to bite the bullet,'' Wise said.


eerlendsson@tampatrib.com (813) 259-7835 Twitter: erlendssontrib

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