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  • Tuesday, December 14, 1999

    Losing cause

    Canucks face similar plight as 'small markets'

    By JIM TAYLOR -- Calgary Sun

     VANCOUVER -- Mere hours after the front page headlines screamed 'Hospitals near state of crisis' and doctors warned that the health-care system in B.C. is fast slipping onto the critically ill list, Stanley McCammon rose to plead the case of the Vancouver Canucks.

     While people at home mulled over the newspaper report of too few nurses, too many patients, bed-closing and postponed surgical procedures, the man who speaks for team owner John McCaw laid out the near-critical state of the Vancouver NHL franchise -- and, by extension, of every Canadian franchise.

     He reported a loss over the past year of $25.5 million and repeated that the NHL team is "coming to a crossroads" unless government responds favorably to its request for "fairness and relief" totaling $15 million annually, roughly equal to what the team loses on the exchange rate paying out in U.S. dollars while taking in Canadian.

     The timing was unfortunate. McCammon wasn't whining or threatening, he was merely stating the situation as he sees it and citing figures to back it up.

     But in a way, it nicely showcased the problem facing Canadian professional sport: Uncle Fred needs surgery he can't get. Grandpa's waiting for a hospital bed. It's Christmas time. We're up to our eyeballs in bills.

     Oh, yeah: and the Canucks are in trouble.

     In Calgary, the hockey crisis has been front and centre since before the season opened, and grows steadily worse. The Flames aren't going to qualify for the NHL's currency equalization program unless they can sell 13,000 season tickets for next year. Meanwhile, dollar-sign droplets drip from every artery. In Ottawa, Rod Bryden holds a gun to government heads by actively seeking buyers who would, of course, move the Senators south.

     But those are small-market franchises, Vancouver is one of the so-called 'major' markets, a city whose team has its own arena and a pro basketball team to double the number of game dates and won't qualify for the subsidy either. If the Canucks can't operate, who can?

     And they're losing their shirt.

     How badly? To the point where the $25.5 million loss in the year ending last June 30 is actually good news, in that it's just under $8 million less than it lost in the previous year.

     No team owner in his right mind would continue to take hits like that, and no one has ever accused McCaw of being minus any marbles.

     "My job is to find a solution," McCammon told shareholders of Northwest Sports, the sub-company that runs the hockey operation. "But if at the end of the day there is no solution, simple economics will ultimately dictate the outcome."

     Ten years ago, that statement would have triggered talk-show panic and demands that governments do something -- anything, no matter what it takes -- to save the city's hockey franchise.

     Today?

     People have other problems. Why should they fret over a team they can't afford to see anyway?

     Excuse me -- the Canucks need money? Sorry, I blew mine on food, Let 'em ask Mark Messier or Alexander Mogilny. Let the players take a pay cut. My business goes broke, the feds aren't handing ME any money.

     Once, Canada needed hockey. Nation-wide, it filled the Saturday nights and the Monday coffee breaks. Today, it competes with 100 TV channels, video games, internet and an economy that has its boot on Canadian necks.

     The feds may yet find a way, an excuse, if you will, to juggle the money and save what used to be our national game.

     But first they have to know in their minds that it's what most of the Canadian people want.

     And that may no longer be true. At least, not at these prices.
    VANCOUVER CANUCKS



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