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  • Wednesday, December 15, 1999

    Canucks brought on own woes

    Want tax breaks to pay for their mistakes

    By AL STRACHAN -- Toronto Sun

      As crests go, the National Hockey League's simple shield, with the letters NHL between two diagonal bars, isn't bad. But what it really needs to set it off is a Latin motto, something that captures the essence of ownership, something like meum meumque.

     In English, that would be, "Where's mine?"

     The Vancouver Canucks, having noticed that the Ottawa Senators seem to be having some degree of success in their pleas for tax relief, have wasted no time waddling up to the trough themselves.

     "I don't want to be perceived as making a threat," Stan McCammon said as he made a threat, "but these issues are real."

     McCammon is an American and the chairman of Northwest Sports Enterprises, the company which owns the Canucks and which, according to McCammon, lost $33.6 million last year. This is, of course, the kind of figure that could be proposed only by those who have had extensive training in creative accounting, and bears no resemblance to reality.

     It is McCammon's suggestion -- not a threat you understand -- that if the Canucks are unable to get their hands on some of the taxpayers' money, they'll have to leave Canada.

     What we have here in a nutshell is the major flaw of socialism. If someone, through no fault of his own, is given assistance, others, who are in a similar plight but brought their troubles on themselves, demand the same assistance.

     The Senators' attendance is excellent. They have worked hard to sell their luxury boxes and to put a competitive team on the ice. As a result, they regularly draw capacity crowds. They have worked hard to be accepted by the community. It is only after exhausting other reasonable means of generating revenue that they asked for tax relief.

     The Canucks, however, have authored their own demise. Look at what this team has done in the past few years.

     The Canucks had a contract worked out with Wayne Gretzky's agent, Mike Barnett. Then, in the wee hours of the morning, they got Gretzky out of bed in his hotel room and demanded he come to the office to sign it.

     Gretzky gave them his word that he would sign the deal in the morning. But that wasn't good enough for the Canucks. "It's now or never," they said. Gretzky went to the New York Rangers.

     Eventually, the Canucks signed Mark Messier and overpaid him. But at least they were trying. Then they brought in Mike Keenan to run the operation. So far so good.

     But then they interviewed Brian Burke for the job of general manager. Not so good. During an afternoon spent on reclusive team owner John McCaw's yacht, Burke swore that he and Keenan would be able to co-exist. McCaw believed him and Burke was hired in June 1998. Keenan was fired in mid-season -- and he's still being paid by the Canucks.

     One of Burke's first acts was to misjudge the situation. Messier spend two weeks talking his old buddy, Rangers goalie Mike Richter who was about to become a free agent, into joining the Canucks. By July 1, when free agency kicked in, Richter had agreed. Vancouver's perennial goaltending problems were about to be solved.

     But Burke refused to pay the $6 million that Richter wanted so the goaltending problems continued.

     Then there was the Pavel Bure fiasco. Bure had demanded a trade the previous season, but Burke wanted to make an example of him and made him sit out most of the 1998-99 season. Eventually, Bure went to the Florida Panthers, leaving Rangers general manager Neil Smith insisting he would have given more. But Burke had not got back to him, even though he had promised he would.

     Burke, meanwhile, was saying that Dave Gagner was the key to the deal, the player he insisted on having. Why that should have been a stumbling block was not clear. Gagner had been a healthy scratch in most of the Panthers' recent games.

     This fall, Burke bought out Gagner's contract. That cost him about $1.6 million US.

     Down on the farm team in Syracuse, he has some of his other acquisitions: Darby Hendrickson, $750,000; Trent Klatt, $1.1 million and Doug Bodger, $700,000.

     The total cost of those mistakes, for those who haven't been keeping track, is $4.15 million US or about $6.6 million Cdn. And that doesn't include Keenan's salary.

     No wonder the Canucks are short of money. They haven't made the playoffs since Burke, who pulled in more than $1.1 million last year, arrived. Now, this sorry aggregation is facing dwindling attendance, down about 2,000 a game, which threatens the Canucks' eligibility for the NHL's Canadian assistance program, a development that would put them further in the hole.

     Canucks executives now are trying to blame their fans and are suggesting that the federal taxpayers should help them out. They should be helped out all right. Helped out the door.
    VANCOUVER CANUCKS



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