August 21, 2012

Fischler Report: Lockout would hit Kings, Panthers hard

By Stan Fischler


Florida's Sean Bergenheim (left) and L.A.'s Dustin Penner race after the puck. (Getty Images)

The prospect of a work-stoppage haunts everyone in hockey. In 1994-95, the Rangers were prevented from defending their Stanley Cup the following October.

Likewise, the same dismal possibility confronts the Kings. An excellent Forbes Magazine article by Chris Smith examines Los Angeles’ prospects as well as those of the Panthers:

NHL commissioner Gary Bettman has made it clear that the league will lock out the players if the two sides fail to reach a new labor agreement by September 15, the expiration date of the league’s current collective bargaining agreement.

The NHL owners issued a somewhat radical proposal to the players, demanding a greater share of league revenue and changes to contract lengths and unrestricted free agency rules. 

The players responded [on August 14] with an “alternate view” of adjustments to the game’s economics, including a reduction of player salaries in exchange for greater revenue sharing.

The players’ response has bred some optimism, but the two sides aren’t quite eye-to-eye just yet. If the owners and players fail to reach a consensus within the next month, NHL teams stand to lose much of the progress made over the last few years.

The league only recently recovered from the lockout of 2004-05, and a shortened NBA season last year helped push NHL league-wide attendance up 2.6% from 2010-11.

The average NHL team is now worth $240 million, up 5% from the previous year and up 20% over the last five.

A lockout would push away the thousands of new fans who helped inject more than $3 billion into the league last season, and the NHL’s 30 teams would feel the financial repercussions for years to come.

But it’s doubtful that any teams would be hit harder both on the ice and in the wallet than the Florida Panthers and Los Angeles Kings.

After more than a decade of irrelevancy, South Florida’s hockey team surged back strong in the 2011-12 season.

A flurry of off-season moves added 12 new players who helped the team take its first ever division title en route to its first playoff appearance in more than a decade.

The sudden success rejuvenated what had been a moribund fan base, and the team averaged nearly 1,000 more fans per home game than the previous season.

It has been a long time since the Panthers entered a season with a confident, well-rounded lineup and a fan base excitedly waiting for the puck to drop.

That’s why the Florida Panthers cannot afford to miss next season.

The team must capitalize on its recent success, especially because it will now have to compete with LeBron James’ Miami Heat, which will play a full season this year.

The Panthers are worth $162 million, ranking among the NHL’s least valuable franchises, and the team hasn’t generated a profit for more than a decade.

A second successful season could begin turning the Panthers’ fortunes around, but losing the season entirely could threaten the team’s very survival.

And if you think competing with one popular NBA team is tough, try competing with two.

That’s what the Los Angeles Kings have to deal with playing in the same city as the Clippers and Lakers. Like with Florida, a shortened NBA season and on-ice success ignited a fan base last season, with hundreds of fans turning out just to watch the team practice.

The defending Stanley Cup champions ought to be one of the NHL’s top stories heading into next year, but the team may be forgotten in its own hometown if next season is cancelled or even delayed.

It’s doubtful that the Kings could afford the loss; while Los Angeles ranked tenth in our most recent NHL team valuations, the team was actually losing money and had a seventh-worst debt-to-value ratio of 66%.

The Kings and Panthers are up against some of the NBA’s most popular franchises, and they play in warm weather climates where hockey has traditionally been a difficult sell.

A lockout would theoretically make the NHL more profitable for team owners, but for Florida and Los Angeles, it would completely erase two success stories long in the making.

OBSERVATIONS

SIDNEY CROSBY AND ALEX OVECHKIN did a nifty bit of grandstanding when they flanked Donald Fehr last week. Their appearance -- on the day that the too-long-delayed NHLPA counter-proposal was made -- was deftly orchestrated by Fehr, Ltd. Ostensibly the Gold Dust Twins were there to display union solidarity. Too bad they didn't say a few words about how they and their brethren never had it so good despite the 24 percent pay cut they were hissing and moaning about at the start of the last agreement.

GOSSIP

Sports-betting site Bovada released the latest Stanley Cup odds for the 2012-13 season.  Pittsburgh leads the list with eight-to-one odds as the early season favorite to win it all, with the Rangers taking a close second at nine-to-one. Some other noteworthy odds include the Bruins, sitting at 16-to-1 and the revamped Hurricanes, at 22-to-1; the kind of dark horse picks that may deliver the best bang for your buck. …

The passing of Boston Red Sox legend, John Pesky, hit close to home for many in the New England area. Pesky made an impact beyond baseball and was liked by all. Former Bruin and current Hall of Famer, Milt Schmidt (pictured right), recalls his time with Johnny Pesky: “John was a great pal and great friend...one of my best friends that I have come across during my stay here in Boston. We were very, very close and I think we became close because he was such a great hockey fan. What a great man he was to know.” ...

There’s a soft side to John Tortorella (Melrose, Mass.) of which many of his friends and family are aware, but which has been hidden from the public. One of the Rangers coach’s favorite projects is the care of animals, especially stray dogs. In that regard he has worked closely with the Westchester Humane Society and other organizations for the humane treatment of animals. This soft side of Torts will be evident on September 9 at Riverside Park, where he’ll be hosting a NYC Dog Walk fundraiser. ...

George McPhee is one of the most respected hockey executives for a reason; he does things right and he does them often. The Capitals’ GM is the man behind USA Hockey’s National Hockey Coaches Symposium, being held in Washington D.C. from August 23-26. McPhee, Maple Leafs president and general manager Brian Burke (Providence, R.I.), Flyers head coach Peter Laviolette (Franklin, Mass.), and Penguins head coach Dan Bylsma are among the notable speakers during the four days. This should be interesting since Laviolette and Bylsmanearly came to blows during the first playoff round.

Follow Stan Fischler on Twitter at @StanFischler.