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Struggling economy to take centre stage during NHL Board of Governors meeting

WEST PALM BEACH, Fla. - The sagging economy will be front and centre as the NHL's board of governors convenes for meetings this week.

Team owners and executives will be addressed by leading economists from both sides of the border on the longer-term effects the economy is expected to have on the league's business.

There will be no shortage of interested parties at the plush Breakers hotel for meetings on Monday and Tuesday as the NHL is believed to have as many as five or six franchises facing financial trouble.

The most serious of those is the Phoenix Coyotes, who are reportedly in line to lose as much as US$35 million this season.

NHL commissioner Gary Bettman has been cautious so far when asked about how the problems on Wall Street will impact his league and isn't expected to drastically change his tone here. However, he has acknowledged that it could become a growing issue.

"I'm mindful of the fact that if there is a continuing economic upheaval, I don't think anybody will be immune from it," Bettman told The Canadian Press in September. "But its exact impact is unpredictable and not something we're feeling yet."

As a result of that, the league's $56.7 million salary cap isn't expected to change much next season. The NHL locks in most of its sponsorship, ticket and TV revenue early in the year so the true impact of the slumping economy isn't expected to be reflected by the cap until the 2010-11 season.

Backed by growing league revenues, the cap has risen drastically each year since it was introduced at the end of the lockout in 2005. Governors are expected to hear that it could drop by one or two million dollars next season, which would mark the first time it has ever gone down.

The cap system ties league revenues directly to player salaries and is affected by fluctuations in the Canadian dollar. The six Canadian-based teams have been among the strongest in the NHL in recent years but a couple have expressed concern that times are changing as the dollar's value continues to drop. Teams pay salaries in American dollars.

After the board of governors meeting in September, Edmonton Oilers CEO Patrick LaForge warned that "Canadian teams are not immune" to the trouble that some of the league's American teams are facing. Montreal Canadiens president Pierre Boivin delivered a similar message during a speech last month.

"We better not return to a 78-cent Canadian dollar because we'll be in the same position we were before the (lockout)," said Boivin. "It's a reality for Canadian teams."

The loonie dipped as low as 76.87 cents US last week and isn't expected to rebound any time soon.

Of course, it's not all doom and gloom for the NHL. The league has seen a massive resurgence in Chicago, where the upstart Blackhawks are drawing more fans than any other team in what has to be considered the game's best feel-good story. The Washington Capitals have also built on last year's playoff appearance and are enjoying strong attendance.

Those types of stories will likely be lost as NHL owners and executives sort through potential problems related to the sagging economy.

One notable person not in attendance this week is NHLPA executive director Paul Kelly. He attended last year's board of governors meeting in California - just as predecessor Ted Saskin had before - but wasn't extended an invite this time around.

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