The NHL Could Learn a Few Things from the NBA

By George Solomon
Sunday, June 26, 2005

Hockey fans must have been frustrated when they picked up their newspapers on Wednesday to see that the NBA and its players' union reached an agreement on a new labor contract, avoiding the kind of impasse that cost the NHL an entire season.

Talk about a good week: The NBA, after starting its Finals with four blowout games in San Antonio and Detroit, offered fans thrillers Sunday and Tuesday to send the series to a seventh and deciding game for the first time since 1994. Add that to the announcement Tuesday of a new six-year collective bargaining agreement that included, for the owners' benefit, shorter player contracts, smaller annual raises, four random drug tests a year, an age minimum of 19 and a minor league.

The players, meanwhile, will receive from the deal at least 57 percent of the league's revenues, a 3 percent increase in the NBA's salary cap, no additional taxes on free-spending teams and an additional two jobs per team up to 14 players.

"I call it a 50-50 deal," NBA Commissioner David Stern said at a news conference in San Antonio on Tuesday night. "Half of it went our way and half of it went their way."

Players Association Executive Director Billy Hunter told reporters at the same news conference that the players wanted to maintain guaranteed contracts, as is the case in baseball and hockey but not the NFL. "You talk to the NFL players and they'll tell you the best deal around is the NBA," Hunter said.

At least Stern and Hunter know that while television ratings for the league are down, they've got a good thing going and it would be hurt considerably by a lockout that would have news coverage of a labor situation in which the owners are multi-millionaires and the workers average $4.9 million in salary per year. Reason prevailed.

That wasn't the case for the NHL these past 12 months. Negotiations between the Bob Goodenow-led players' union and Commissioner Gary Bettman and his owners' committee have dragged on for more than a year -- both sides haggling over salary caps, revenue percentages and team accounting procedures before Bettman canceled the remainder of the season on Feb. 16. It was the first time an entire North American pro sports season was wiped out because of a labor impasse.

Within the next two weeks, the two sides who killed the NHL season likely will announce a new collective bargaining agreement that will include a salary cap of about 54 percent of a team's revenues and a 24 percent rollback on current salaries that average about $1.8 million a player. That will leave many hockey players and fans to ask, "Why did we miss a season?"

In the meantime, the Capitals will begin a process of trying to regain their fan base facing a new competitor in town -- the Washington Nationals -- without many of their former stars who were traded in 2004 and desperately needing to sign last June's No. 1 draft pick, Alexander Ovechkin of Russia.

"The league and our team know we'll be facing a hard road," Caps President Dick Patrick said the other day. "We've lost a year, but we'll be working to win the fans back."

GM George McPhee said signing Ovechkin is a top priority, adding: "We have a solid nucleus of young players and veterans. We'll be young, fast and competitive. The emphasis on our team will be speed."

Modest suggestion: Reduce ticket prices for the coming season. The fans deserve a break after this.

Still Teenagers

The NBA's age minimum of 19 will not have much effect on college basketball, so say George Washington's Karl Hobbs, Georgetown's John Thompson III and Maryland's Gary Williams.

"This is no factor whatsoever," said Hobbs, whose week was brightened by the news his star forward, Pops Mensah-Bonsu, will return to Foggy Bottom for his senior year. "Kids good enough at 18 will go to prep school for a year, then go to the NBA. Twenty would have been a better age limit."

"It's a step in the right direction," Thompson said. "Some kids will say, 'We'll go to school for a year, then to the NBA.' "

"An age limit looks good, but those kids good enough for the NBA are usually older than 19 anyway when they come out of high school. If not, they'll go to Europe for a year or prep school or junior college," Williams said. "If they go to college for a year, how many will earn credits in class?"

Still, added Williams, "You might take a Carmelo Anthony for a year."

I personally like the NBA's plan to increase its use of the Developmental League, similar to how baseball uses the minor leagues, which would have helped you know who of the Wizards.

Touching the Bases

· Have my own pool on which team will get sold first: The Washington Nationals by Major League Baseball to one of eight groups bidding up to $400 million or MLS's D.C. United by Colorado billionaire Philip F. Anschutz to real estate guys Willi Lauterbach and Timothy Kissler, along with team boss Kevin Payne, for about $20 million.

Understand why MLB is taking its time. According to Thomas Heath's story in The Post this week, the Nats will turn a profit this year of about $20 million from what was for three years a drain on the sport. MLB has started interviewing ownership groups, but what could they be asking?

"Why do you want to own the Nationals?"

"Who is your favorite Nat?"

"Can I see your checkbook balance?"

"How 'bout the Chief?"

"What do you think of that 90-10 MASN deal favoring the O's?"

"Would Colin Powell come to our All-Star Game?"

Enough. Just Do It.

United, meanwhile, was putting its act together over the past week while my favorite player, Freddy Adu, was getting blamed for the U.S. being ousted by Italy on Tuesday from the World Youth Championships. Leave Freddy alone, I say, and start playing him at RFK, or risk losing him.

· Another team getting its act together is the WNBA's Washington Mystics, who after a slow start are working their way back to .500 behind Alana Beard and rookie point guard Temeka Johnson.

· Props to the Orioles for giving away 50,000 game tickets to Baltimore city school students. The Nationals have a similar program for D.C. students, with info available on the community page at http://Nationals.com .

· And congratulations to Mary Garber, 89, the first woman to win the Red Smith Award given by the Associated Press Sports Editors for distinguished service in sports journalism. Garber began writing sports for the Winston-Salem Journal starting in the 1940s, retiring in 1986 when she continued writing part time.

Have a comment or question, you can reach me at Talkback@washpost.com

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