Work in Sports
'This proposal is dead'
Canadian government ices NHL subsidy program
Posted: Friday January 21, 2000 07:01 PM
NEW YORK (AP) -- The NHL is intent on keeping six teams in Canada -- but less hopeful of doing so -- after the Canadian government on Friday abandoned its bailout of those clubs.
Without the federal aid plan, further migration of teams from Canada to the United States is a real possibility.
"I'm obviously disappointed by the recent developments and remain concerned," NHL commissioner Gary Bettman said. "This is an appropriate time to regroup and reassess.
"We have challenges and we will do everything we can to keep the six teams in Canada and keep them competitive. I'm not as optimistic today."
On Tuesday, the government approved a plan to provide up to about $2 million annually to each team. The plan was contingent on city and provincial governments also giving money.
But the relief package fell apart Friday and was scrapped amid strong opposition.
Industry Minister Manley called the public response "clear" and "negative." He said the proposal is "dead, and we will not be pursuing the issue any further."
The Edmonton Oilers, Calgary Flames, Vancouver Canucks and Ottawa Senators could follow the Quebec Nordiques and Winnipeg Jets across the border. The Nordiques moved to Denver and the Jets to Phoenix.
"I'm not too happy to see it fall apart," Manley said of the aid package. "If it leads to the demise of National Hockey League teams in Canada, it will be a very sad development."
The other Canadian teams are Original Six members Montreal and Toronto.
Several U.S. cities, including Houston, Las Vegas, and Portland, Ore., have expressed interest in having NHL teams.
"Our focus has to be to keep the six teams in Canada where they are now," said Bettman, who called Canada "the heart and soul of the game."
Bettman on Tuesday had hailed the Canadian government for "courageously ... addressing a difficult issue in a meaningful way."
He said there is no longer a national solution to this predicament and the teams will now be handled on a one-on-one basis.
"Each of the clubs and their ownership is going to have to take a step back and evaluate their individual circumstances," Bettman said.
Ottawa Senators owner Rod Bryden gladly put away his team's "For Sale" sign Tuesday. Now he won't have to go far to retrieve it.
"It's still in the garage, but it's probably useful we didn't burn it," he said.
Bryden said he will need as much as 10 days to decide his next move.
"This is high-stakes poker, folks," Canucks president and general manager Brian Burke said. "And it's a lot about the future of this city and this province."
The Canucks reported a $24 million loss last year, and Burke says he will next approach the city and provincial governments.
"We're not discouraged by it," he said of the aid relief. "We're dismayed by it, but in no way are we throwing in the towel."
Provincial ministers from British Columbia, Alberta and Quebec and Ontario Premier Mike Harris all opposed the plan. Brenda Chamberlain, head of Ontario's Liberal Party caucus, said she has fielded numerous protest calls.
"My caucus colleagues have echoed their constituents' opposition," Manley said. "The prime minister and I want them to know today that this government listens and takes their views very seriously."
Although puzzled by the extent of the criticism in Canada, Bettman said he did not fault Canadian leaders for the turnabout.
"At the end of the day, the will of the people as determined by the federal government, was `No' and you have to go with the will of the people," he said.
Canada's NHL teams have been damaged by a number of factors. They earn most of their revenues in Canadian dollars and pay most expenses -- notably player salaries -- in American currency. That puts them at a serious competitive disadvantage against U.S. teams.
Franchises also complain of higher taxes in Canada, while all NHL teams have been stung by salaries that are climbing by about 10 percent annually. The average NHL salary exceeds $1.3 million.
Some U.S. franchises have received tax breaks or had publicly funded arenas built for them.
Edmonton Mayor Bill Smith called the federal package an "ill-conceived plan that went astray."
Alberta Treasurer Stockwell Day questioned why the federal government didn't act when teams in Winnipeg and Quebec were in trouble.
"But when the Ottawa Senators had a problem, it seemed to ring a bell," he said.