No deadline set for saving part of season

RALEIGH, N.C. -- The NHL has no plans to eliminate teams in the face of an extended labor dispute with the players' association.

"We are not considering contraction," NHL commissioner Gary Bettman said at a news conference with Carolina Hurricanes owner Peter Karmanos Jr. "We have not, we will not and we do not believe in contraction. With the right economic system, all 30 of our clubs can be healthy and competitive."

Bettman later joined Karmanos for a town hall-style meeting with season ticket-holders at the RBC Center -- where the Hurricanes were supposed to open the season Thursday night against Atlanta.

The NHL has been shut down for nearly a month following the expiration of the collective bargaining agreement. The league and the players' association are so far apart philosophically that they haven't met or spoken since Sept. 9.

The decade-old deal ran out a week later. Training camps didn't open on time and the entire preseason was wiped out. Now the entire regular season is in jeopardy.

The league wants a deal that would slice the percentage of revenue paid out in player salaries, and Bettman has said teams combined to lose more than $1.8 billion over 10 years.

The NHL's average salary has risen from $733,000 since the last lockout in 1994-95 to $1.83 million last season, according to the players' association, which has challenged many of the league's financial findings.

The league has no deadline for making a deal that would save part of the season, Bettman said.

"That's a question we know is out there and we're not even thinking about," he said. "We need to make the right deal to make this league and our franchises healthy. We owe it to the game. We owe it to our fans. We owe it to our franchises in the markets we play in.

"When we have the deal, when the agreement is signed ... then we'll determine whether or not based on that timing we can have some semblance of a season. If we can, great. If we can't, we'll do it next year. This is about the deal as opposed to the timetable," he said.

Bettman's comments about contraction could come as a relief to hockey fans in the area, where speculation has persisted that the Hurricanes could be at risk. But Bettman called the Raleigh area a "terrific market" and said he didn't know why there was such speculation.

Karmanos said last month that he has lost $12 million to $16 million a year since buying the franchise in 1994. General manager Jim Rutherford also said last month that the franchise lost about $22 million in last year's 82-game season but expects losses of
$7.5 million if no games are played in 2004-05.

"We really would like to make sure our fans know that we're alive and well and that we're working hard to get the economic system right," Karmanos said. "We're not worried about (contraction). This is a solid, solid marketplace."