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Sunday, February 4, 1990 - Page updated at 12:00 AM

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Nhl Salary List Sparks Players' Reactions -- Will There Be Squabbles Over Players' Worth?

Chicago Tribune

LAKE ARROWHEAD, Calif. - Compared to salaries in baseball, basketball and football, what National Hockey League players earn looks like good tip money to an Orel Hershiser or Patrick Ewing.

That's not to say hockey players don't bank a good buck. Many do. But they are out of their league when competing with the megabucks showered on other athletes.

That was apparent from the first disclosure of NHL salaries, released this week by the Players Association in hopes that comparison will drive up salaries in the coming years.

But without the major network TV revenue that helps to fund the other three major pro sports, hockey will never flaunt the kind of routine millionaire salaries athletes in other sports earn.

NBA players average between $800,000 and $900,000 a year. Baseball players average $490,829. Hockey players average just $200,000.

Hockey's top two, of course, are Pittsburgh's Mario Lemieux and Los Angeles' Wayne Gretzky. In a recently signed contract, Lemieux agreed on $2 million in base salary. Gretzky rakes in $1,720,000 a year.

But these figures are supplemented by deferred compensation. Add another million for Gretzky in this category and a sizeable chunk for Lemieux, though his exact compensation wasn't revealed in the salary disclosures.

This pair is competitive in a way with the top money earners in other sports. Pitchers Hershiser of the Dodgers and the Mets' Frank Viola topped baseball last season at $2,766,667.

In football, Houston's Warren Moon led the way with $1.5 million. In basketball, Ewing received a staggering $3.5 million.

``I should have grown up to be a basketball player,'' lamented Chicago Blackhawks center Troy Murray, whose $265,000 a year salary is third highest on his team.

``We don't have free agency or TV money, so we had to do something to help ourselves, and showing everyone the salaries will benefit us,'' said veteran Hawks winger Duane Sutter. ``I wish this had happened when I was 21.''

Alan Eagleson, the Players Association executive director, said hockey players currently share in 48 percent of the gross revenues taken in by ownership. But when the present contract expires Sept. 15, 1991, the players will ask management for more money.

``In our negotiations for a new contract with the owners, we will be looking for 50 to 60 percent of the profit, which would be similar to what basketball has now,'' Eagleson said.

The list of base salaries (not including bonuses or incentives) made for captivating reading and lively conversation among the Blackhawk players studying the newspaper at breakfast last week at their practice site in Lake Arrowhead, Calif. They were preparing to play Los Angeles Thursday night.

``Look at that. It's a joke what that guy makes.''

``I make more than him! I'll have to kid him about that.''

``Heh, I'm as good as that guy and look what he's making.''

That's a sampling of the kind of things the Hawks were exclaiming while running a finger down the column of figures. They looked not unlike stockbrokers, beginning their day with a check of the latest market earnings.

The Hawks are one of just four teams to pay two or more players $500,000 or better annually. Center Denis Savard leads the team with a $525,000 salary, and defenseman Doug Wilson earns $500,000.

``I told Willie, `You don't really expect me to believe that's all you make,' '' joked defenseman Bob Murray. ``I think some of the figures are deceptively low because of not including the extras that go with the base salary.''

The Blackhawks ranked 10th among the 21 teams in average player salary at $235,000, although Canadian and U.S. dollars were treated equally in the breakdown. The Hawks' total payroll is $5.4 million.

Los Angeles and Pittsburgh were the top two in average salary, the Kings at $375,000 and the Penguins at $305,000.

``Now the fans can say, `He makes that much, he's not worth it,''' Hawks defenseman Trent Yawney said. ``I'm sure the general managers won't like this at all. It should make salaries go up.''

Could it lead, however, to jealousies within clubs? For instance, center Adam Creighton leads the Hawks with 28 goals, but he is in the middle of the Hawks' salaries at $175,000 a year.

``You have to be adult about it,'' said Steve Larmer, the Hawks' player representative. ``You're not going to not pass the puck to this guy because he makes more than you. Once the puck is dropped, it's hockey, and no politics are involved.''

Savard foresees a few squabbles. ``Some guys are going to say, `I should make more than that guy.' So there will be a little bit of a problem.''

Coach Mike Keenan admitted he'll be looking to see if players react negatively to the situation.

``There always could be problems dealing with the business side of the operation,'' he said. ``Some people are delighted to see what they make compared to others, and some people are disappointed.

``There can't be free agency in hockey because we don't have the TV money. We can't afford it. You can only ask owners to pay so much.

``But I still believe hockey is on the rise in the 1990s. I don't know if basketball can rise any more than it has, or football or baseball. But as we are on the upswing in hockey, we have to be intelligent about the demands.''

All of the Hawks questioned about the disclosure believe it's for the best.

``It's going to help the average guy increase his salary by comparing himself to what other people are making,'' said winger Al Secord. ``It's a big step for hockey, because the salaries have been available in the other sports.''

One of the most noticeable discrepancies was the low $125,000 a year made by St. Louis' Brett Hull, who leads the NHL with 45 goals. The Blues pay no one more than $250,000 and had the cheapest payroll in the NHL with a $156,000 average salary.

``All these guys signed on the dotted line and were happy with their salaries when they did,'' Secord said. ``Now they have to live with it and, if they play well, make the most of it out of their next contract.''

But there is certain to be a lot of bickering and sniping going on with hard figures to point at. You can bet it will lead to some name calling now with everyone knowing whose name goes beside what salary.

Copyright (c) 1990 Seattle Times Company, All Rights Reserved.

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