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Money woes put Canada's 'national game' at risk

Wayne Gretzky helped grow US hockey, now high-profit US teams are

When Wayne Gretzky announced his retirement from professional hockey Friday, the news was enough to knock war in the Balkans off front pages here, for a day at least.

But widely hailed as the greatest player in the history of the game, the skinny kid from Brantford, Ontario, wasn't just Canada's hero. He's credited with having helped put hockey on the map - literally - in many cities in the United States as well.

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When he was traded to the Los Angeles Kings in 1988, Mr. Gretzky's graceful, gentlemanly play turned southern Californians onto the sport Canadians call their national game. Now the National Hockey League has franchises in all sorts of cities - Anaheim, Phoenix, Dallas - where the inhabitants do not, in the normal course of things, have much experience with ice.

After all this expansion, however, NHL hockey is, ironically, in trouble in Canada. Some analysts say that Toronto is the only Canadian city not in danger of losing its NHL team to the US, as team owners confront the changed economics of the sport.

In December, Dennis Mills, member of Parliament, issued a controversial parliamentary committee report that recommended tax relief for sports teams. He hesitates to use a term like "tax break" but says, "Sport contributes [Canadian] $1.5 billion into the treasuries of Canada. Is there a way to take less?"

Rod Bryden, who paid US$50 million for the franchise to launch the Ottawa Senators in 1992, has been one of the most outspoken owners on the need for government help. He has one of the smallest payrolls in the league, and the team has played well to sellout crowds - but it is running in the red to the tune of nearly $5 million a year.

Without some tax relief to treat hockey like other internationally competitive industries, he says, his options are to "move the team to where it doesn't lose money, or to keep writing checks." He ticks off the problems:

*The Canadian dollar has weakened. If 1992 exchange rates prevailed today, that alone would put him in the black.

*New stadiums north of the border are generally built with private funds; to the south, they have generally been built with public money. What the US-based teams save on real estate costs they can spend to bid player salaries up, Mr. Bryden says.

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*His local real estate and sales taxes amount to more in a year "than all the US teams' combined."

If no help is forthcoming, Bryden plans to "start the process" of a move this fall.

One of the severest critics of government help to sports teams is Mark Rosentraub of Indiana University in Indianapolis. "Even if Ottawa had built a 100 percent subsidized stadium, in a few months, we'd be having the same discussion," he says. Canadian cities, he says, except for Toronto and possibly Montreal and Vancouver, are simply not big enough to support professional teams to compete with those of the big American cities. He calls the focus on tax relief "wrongheaded." But Canadian observers counter that hockey is different - their cities may be smaller but they contain proportionately more hockey fans than cities to the south.

Decima Research of Ottawa found in a poll last month that 72 percent of Canadians agree that hockey helps define Canada as a nation. This was more people, Decima chairman David Crapper noted, than said that of the country's democratic form of government. Moreover, 40 percent of respondents agreed with the statement, "Because the US governments financially support US NHL hockey teams, Canadian governments should financially support Canadian NHL hockey teams."

Quebec has just acted to help keep Major League Baseball in Montreal: The government has agreed to pay $4.7 million annually for 20 years to help the team finance a new stadium. The money will come from the present tourism budget.

John Hannigan, a University of Toronto sociologist and author of a book called "Fantasy City: Pleasure and Profit in the Postmodern Metropolis," calls this "just enough money so that nobody can say they [the government] 'lost' the team."

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