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A drop of five cents in the Canadian dollar means Miikka Kiprusoff's $8.5 million US salary costs the Calgary Flames an extra $425,000. ((Jed Jacobsohn/Getty Images))

It's the most important game in the NHL right now, and it's not taking place on the ice.

The unpredictable nature of the Canadian dollar means the NHL's six Canadian teams are involved in a high-stakes contest of financial chicken, trying to stay one step ahead of the loonie at all times.

It's a game they can ill afford to lose.

As recently as last November, the Canadian dollar briefly reached $1.10 US, and still hovered above par with its American counterpart in May. But on Wednesday the once-mighty loonie plunged below 80 cents U.S., and it could keep falling, according to market experts.

Not surprisingly, NHL owners north of the border are monitoring this situation closely.

NHL teams pay their players in American currency, which means the plummeting Canadian dollar has serious ramifications on the league's Canadian clubs.

The below chart, based on payroll data from nhlnumbers.com, outlines how much extra each Canadian team would pay in player salaries depending on the value of the dollar:

 NHL team Player payroll in US dollars 95 cent Cdn dollar 90 cent Cdn dollar 85 cent Cdn dollar  80 cent Cdn dollar
 Calgary $57.09 million $59.94 million (difference of $2.85 millon) $62.8 million (difference of $5.7 million)  $65.65 million (difference of $8.56 million)  $68.5 million (difference of $11.41 million) 
 Edmonton $54.25 million $56.97 million (difference of $2.71 million)   $59.68 million (difference of $5.42 million)  $62.39 million (difference of $8.13 million)  $65.11 million (difference of $10.85 million) 
 Montreal $55.58 million $58.36 million (difference of $2.77 million)  $61.14 million  (difference of $5.55 million)  $63.92 million (difference of $8.33 million)  $66.7 million (difference of $11.11 million) 
 Ottawa $53.48 million $56.16 million (difference of $2.67 million)  $58.83 million (difference of $5.34 million)  $61.51 million (difference of $8.02 million)  $64.18 million (difference of $10.69 million) 
 Toronto $48.06 million  $50.47 million (difference of $2.4 million)  $52.87 million (difference of $4.8 million)  $55.27 million (difference of 7.21 million)  $57.68 million (difference of $9.61 million) 
 Vancouver $48.44 million $50.86 million (difference of $2.42 million) $53.28 million (difference of $4.84 million)  $55.70 million (difference of $7.26 million)  $58.13 million (difference of 9.68 million) 

The Edmonton Oilers' payroll for the 2008-09 season stands at $54.25 million US — that's when the loonie is at par with the U.S. dollar. But if the Canadian dollar continues to trade at 80 cents U.S., the Oilers' payroll balloons to $65.11 Cda, a difference of $10.8 million Cda.

The Calgary Flames' payroll for this season is $57.09 million US, but it shoots up to $68.5 million Cda when the dollar is at 80 cents U.S., a difference of  $11.41 million US.

The Toronto Maple Leafs ($9.6 million extra), Montreal Canadiens ($11.4 million), Ottawa Senators ($10.6 million), and the Vancouver Canucks ($9.6 million) would all have to pay significantly more sums of money in player salaries this season if the Canadian dollar remained at 80 cents U.S.

Even a drop of five cents in the dollar means goalie Miikka Kiprusoff's $8.5 million US salary costs the Flames an extra $425,000.

A 20-cent difference in the dollar poses serious issues for Canadian teams, according to Oilers president Patrick Laforge.

"That will be painful, because we've lived through a period where we were 20 per cent or worse. A 20-cent differential is no less than $11 million. That's a problem," Laforge told CBC Radio.

Tried to hedge by stockpiling

Laforge said Canadian teams tried to hedge against the falling loonie by stockpiling U.S. dollars when it was on par with the Canadian dollar, but he warned that war-chest of money will only last a couple more months.

The fluctuating nature of the loonie makes it more difficult for Canadian teams to operate, forcing them into a guessing game in the off-season when they try to come up with their budgets.

"We try to project what the dollar is going to be, so that's what we're basing our budget on in terms of managing our money. That's [what you have to do] first and foremost as a Canadian GM," Flames GM Darryl Sutter told CBCSports.ca recently.

You can't underestimate the value of the Canadian dollar when it comes to the overall health of the NHL, warns Dan Mason, a professor at the University of Alberta who teaches about the business of hockey.

"It could be a double whammy in an economy like Alberta .… if you have a commodity-based economy plummet and the dollar plummeting, that does not bode well for those franchises," said Mason.