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Salary cap expected to go up to between US$46 million and $47.5 million

"It's only the beginning of December but it appears two months in that revenues will be up," NHL commissioner Gary Bettman said after the first day of meetings at the board of governors. "I do expect the cap to go up but I don't know by how much."

Sources indicated the league expects about four to five per cent growth in revenues according to the early figures, which would translate to between $46 million and $47.5 million as the upper limit on the salary cap.

So despite lower attendance in some markets, the $44-million salary cap is not going down as was widely speculated.

"There's not going to be a dip," Ted Saskin, executive director of the NHL Players' Association, said after addressing NHL owners. "The cap's definitely going to increase based on everything I've seen so far."

"We're clearly going to have revenue growth," added Saskin.

Last season's final revenue number was $2.178 billion, way ahead of the projected $1.8 billion, which in turn raised the salary cap from $39 million to $44 million this season. A five per cent growth in revenues this season would translate into about $2.286 billion.

"It's not that we're going to be $380 million above forecast like we were last season, but I think we'll see good, healthy growth," said Saskin. "And that will reflect itself throughout the system in an increase in the upper limit, an increase in the payroll range and a significant reduction in the escrow which started this season at 10 per cent.

"And that's the same thing I've been sharing with the players in my meetings with them."

Emptier arenas - NHL attendance is down about one per cent across the board - won't translate into lower revenues because the majority of teams raised ticket prices this season. Gate receipts are up.

"I wasn't surprised (about the cap going up) because of the percentage increases in ticket sales," said Minnesota Wild GM Doug Risebrough. "I was not thinking that (the cap) was going down."

The day began Monday with the owners' executive committee interviewing prospective Pittsburgh Penguins owner Jim Balsillie in the morning. The CEO of Waterloo, Ont.-based Research In Motion didn't speak with reporters afterward.

"I think they were very comfortable with Jim as a prospective owner and he's going to try and make it work in Pittsburgh but he's going to need some help in terms of a new building," said Bettman.

A decision is expected Dec. 20 on whether the Isle of Capri gambling consortium wins a slots licence for downtown Pittsburgh. The Isle of Capri will in turn build a new arena for the Penguins if it wins the licence. Where it gets really interesting is what Balsillie will do if the Isle of Capri deal falls through and no new arena is in place. Rumours persist he'd like to move the team to Southern Ontario.

"Obviously if they get the (slots) licence there's a contractual commitment to the team," said Bettman. "If there isn't (a licence) then there will be an opportunity, I suppose, for other places to make their interests known. Although he reiterated, as did the executive committee, that we would like this team to stay in Pittsburgh if it's possible. ...

"He was crystal clear that he wants to keep the team in Pittsburgh, obviously he's going to need a new arena to do that though," added Bettman.

The full board of governors is expected to hold a fax vote on approving the Penguins sale sometime in the next week.

The board of governors get-together wraps up Tuesday with a four-hour meeting. Topping the agenda will be talk on the unbalanced schedule as well as a possible format change for the playoffs. Both would need two thirds approval in a vote and it's not clear that's going to happen.

The GMs were unable to find consensus on the schedule in early November but the owners will tackle it again.

"This is really an opportunity to put the issue to bed once and for all," Bettman said.

Some owners would like to see more games between Eastern and Western conference teams and less division play. The NHL is in the second season of its unbalanced schedule, which was introduced after the lockout ended. Each club plays eight games against divisional rivals (32 in total), four against the 10 non-division clubs in its conference (40 in total) and only 10 games against teams from the other conference, five at home and five on the road. The cycle wraps up next season, unless owners vote to change the format Tuesday.

"What's clear is while a number of people would like to see a change there aren't a whole lot of people who agree on what that change should be and since we're in the middle of a three-year cycle there's some sense to ride out the cycle," said Bettman.

In his address to owners, Saskin told them a schedule change would be welcomed among the players.

"I did indicate that the majority of players who I've spoken with would certainly support some increased play outside of their division," said Saskin. "We all recognize there are challenges and competing interests anytime you make adjustments in the schedule, but the benefit of seeing more teams in the regular season is one that is understood and supported by the membership."



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