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Players have vested interest in full arenas

Few NHL players are economic experts, a former National Hockey League Players' Association official says, but most of them want to see a second franchise in the Greater Toronto Area because they know it would put more money in their pockets.

The trouble is, the players have no way to force the owners to do what they think is best for them - and the league. The other problem with this topic is that such talk usually includes the prospects of moving a financially troubled team such as the Phoenix Coyotes or Atlanta Thrashers to Southern Ontario. The threat of such turbulence upsets the players on those teams, which is why the former union executive wishes to remain anonymous.

The collective agreement between the players and the owners calls for 57 per cent of the NHL's hockey-related revenue to go to the players. Even if a player does not understand how escrow works - the holding back of a percentage of his annual salary to compensate the owners in case hockey revenues fall short of projections - he sees the disparity in revenue between the stronger and weaker markets.

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"The players do understand that when they come to Toronto [the arena]is packed but when they get to Phoenix it's not packed and when they go to Atlanta it's half-full," the former NHLPA official said. "They get it when they look at the seats and say, 'Oh, my.'

"Phoenix might be a comfortable place to live, you're playing in a market where people don't know who you are, your kids are in flip-flops and there is no such thing as a winter coat. But there is so little revenue generated by those markets for the overall pie, that the 730 other players [in the league]who are putting winter coats on their kids are paying the price."

Every autumn, the executive director and other NHLPA executives visit the 30 NHL teams to discuss issues. The former executive said some players are always shocked by the difference in annual revenue between the top teams and the bottom teams.

In 2007-08, for example, the Toronto Maple Leafs pulled in $1.9-million (all figures U.S.) a game in ticket sales that brought in $78-million for the year. The Coyotes, on the other end of the scale, averaged $450,000 a game for total ticket revenue of $18.4-million. And that was before the court battle between the NHL and former Coyotes owner Jerry Moyes damaged the fan base this past season.

The "$25-million [in annual Phoenix revenue]is about $150-million less than a second Toronto team would make," the former union executive said in comparing the lowest-revenue teams to projected revenues for a second team in the GTA. "As the [collective]agreement sits now, there's nothing in there that says the [NHL]has to keep a team in Phoenix.

"But you would think in spite of the agreement, the league would see the responsibility to their economic partners [the players]to make sure this is as glorious a situation as possible for all parties. The problem is the players don't have a vehicle to put a gun to the league's head and say, move these teams."

Many NHL owners feel the same way, the former executive said, even if they are not speaking out. He pointed to the playoff series in the spring between the NHL-owned Coyotes and the Detroit Red Wings that went seven games.

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"I can't imagine any owner happily paying to keep the Phoenix Coyotes alive," he said. "I would love to have picked [Red Wings owner]Mike Ilitch's brain on Game 7 to see which team he was cheering for of the two he owned. That's not the way it's supposed to play out."

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About the Author
Hockey columnist

A native of Wainfleet, Ont., David Shoalts joined The Globe in 1984 after working at the Calgary Herald, Calgary Sun and Toronto Sun. He graduated in 1978 from Conestoga College and also attended the University of Waterloo. More

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