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Don’t count on there being an NHL season next year

Don't get too excited, Saskatoon.

Or you, Regina. Or you, Barrie, Ont., for that matter.

NHL fans in Regina have circled Sept. 27 as the day the Edmonton Oilers and the New York Islanders meet in a preseason exhibition season. Two days later, the Winnipeg Jets and Boston Bruins are to play in Saskatoon. And next night the Islanders and Ottawa Senators are scheduled to meet in Barrie.

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But don't count on it.

The NHL long ago cancelled any plans for heading off to Europe or Japan for any preseason games leading into 2012-13. Now the minimum-travel North American exhibition schedule can be cancelled with a couple of phone calls – which is now considered likely to happen.

As for the regular season, announced this week to begin Thursday Oct. 11 – Vancouver Canucks at Calgary Flames, Ottawa at Montreal Canadiens – you'd be foolish to bet on that, as well.

For the better part of a year, the hockey world was convinced the Mayans were cockeyed, that the NHL wouldn't dare repeat in 2012 what it had risked in 2004-05 and gambled halfway back in 1994-95. Owners had survived the lost half-season in the prosperous mid-1990s and had been considered to have thrived following the entirely lost season eight years ago, when they came out of the lockout with "cost certainty," a salary cap and a reinvented game.

The popular thinking was they wouldn't dare try that again – risk offending a fan base that might not come back as readily as fans had in 2005. Nor would the players – richer in revenue sharing than they had ever been in individual negotiation – want to bring an end to what was clearly a very good thing for them.

The NHL brags about its record revenues of $3.3-billion (all currency U.S.), but floods of money didn't stop the NFL or the NBA from holding things up last year until rich owners could strike a better deal.

It's well known that NHL owners are keen to rejig the split – currently 57/43 in favour of players – to something closer to 50/50, as the other leagues have managed.

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They'd also like to do something about long-term contracts – entirely a situation of their own making, by the way – and come up with some mechanism for breaking free of the many that go sour. And, of course, they'd always like more leverage regarding entry-level contracts and unrestricted free agents.

But there is one area of potential conflict that gets little talked about. It has to do with the salary cap the owners fought so hard for last time around and the players eventually capitulated on in what was widely considered a triumphant romp for the owners.

Surprisingly, the owners' concern isn't at the top end, where the cap is expected to exceed $70-million a team in 2012-13 – shockingly up from the $39-million it was in the first year of the salary cap, 2005-06.

It lies, instead, at the lower end, the bare minimum teams must spend. This is expected to rise to $54-million this year, $15-million more than the top of the salary cap was when the current collective agreement began.

The reason this is of such concern to a number of owners is that, surprisingly, many of the more established owners are actually keener on bringing their stumbling partners in line than they are the players.

It is common knowledge that the league has had to bail out the Phoenix Coyotes and New Jersey Devils, but there are several other teams either in, or close to, serious red ink. The successful owners are tired of hearing about the struggles of the weak and sick of bailouts.

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It's time to get the stray ducks in line, they say.

To that point, there is a movement to go after the minimum. Some clubs would like it abolished outright. Weaker clubs say they don't care how much the New York Rangers or Philadelphia Flyers spend so long as they aren't trapped by a minimum that, they believe, forces them to spend on players they'd rather not take on and can be a severe cramp on rebuilding.

They want the latitude baseball teams have. Sell off the big assets for what you can get and start over with a more sensible economic model for the franchise.

A lowered minimum – let alone no minimum at all – is sure to fire up the players, now being led by a hard-nosed negotiator who came over from baseball, Donald Fehr.

There is, says one, "a fear of Fehr" among owners who are determined to address the minimum salary-cap issue.

And that, of course, can only ignite a far greater fear among those fans who haven't the slightest interest in how high or how low a salary cap might to.

The fear of no season at all, once again.

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About the Author

Roy MacGregor was born in the small village of Whitney, Ont., in 1948. Before joining The Globe and Mail in 2002, he worked for the National Post, the Ottawa Citizen, Maclean's magazine (three separate times), the Toronto Star and The Canadian Magazine. More

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