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Habs president calls weak loonie a threat to Canadian teams

MONTREAL - Montreal Canadiens president Pierre Boivin fears that the sagging loonie could send Canadian NHL teams spiralling back into the dark economic days that preceded the lockout.

Boivin said Wednesday that the league's six Canadian clubs are thriving at the gate and bring in more than a third of the total revenue for the 30-team NHL.

But he identified the tumbling dollar and the league's revenue-sharing deal as threats to the continued viability of Canadian clubs.

"We better not return to a 78-cent Canadian dollar because we'll be in the same position we were before the work stoppage," Boivin told reporters after giving a speech to Montreal's board of trade.

"It's a reality for Canadian teams."

The Canadian dollar in fact closed Wednesday at 79.83 US cents, down 1.48 cents.

He said the NHL's Canadian organizations are not only at the mercy of the dollar's performance, but must still pay into the league's post-lockout revenue-sharing program to prop up weaker U.S. teams.

More than 150 straight sellouts at the Bell Centre have helped the Habs boost their payroll from $47 million US before the lockout to $55 million US this season.

But the team is also on the hook for another $18 million this year under the revenue-sharing deal, he said.

"If we calculate it against an 80-cent dollar, we're not any further ahead than we were before the lockout," said Boivin, who believes the loonie must be at par with the U.S. greenback for Canadian teams to remain competitive.

He did not suggest turfing the shared revenues, but said the next agreement must include mechanisms to offset the disparities.

"I think we have to look at how Canadian teams can continue to stay competitive," said Boivin, who spoke to the business audience to discuss the famed hockey club's centennial season.

"We must not get into the same mess we were in before."

Boivin said Canadian teams each lost tens of millions of dollars in the years leading up to the NHL lockout, a period when they had difficulty piecing together competitive squads.

He referred to it as an era when many Canadian fans had lost hope.

The NHL lost the 2004-05 season to a labour dispute before the players and owners signed a new collective bargaining agreement, which included a salary cap.

Boivin, who took over as team president in 1999, called the lockout "absolutely worth it" because the league's salary cap is much better than the previous system.

However, he said there are still aspects of the cap that are "not working well."

"I think we have the greatest amount of competitive balance that we've ever had as a sport," he said.

"But I think like any other system - we have three years of experience at it now - we need to look at what's working well, what's not working well and get prepared for the next round (of negotiations)."

He said the players have an option to reopen the existing agreement this spring, but he doubts the union will touch it until it's about to expire, which is in about two years.

"I think the deal is good for them at the moment," Boivin said of an agreement that was widely believed to be a bad deal for the players when it was signed three years ago.

The Canadiens president also said the league has yet to feel the brunt of the global financial crisis.

"We are all aware that we are in an economic period that it is very, very difficult."

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