Lockout will end soon

MIKE ULMER -- Toronto Sun

, Last Updated: 8:29 AM ET

There will be NHL hockey in the fall. The end game has in fact started between the NHL and the players' association.

When league vice-president Bill Daly told reporters he saw a negotiated settlement coming soon, he started the countdown to a deal that should be wrapped up in the next month.

There is, in fact, little left for the players but to try to save face.

Adamant since the beginning that ownership was cooking the books, the PA and the league have been working on a joint review. It's the kind of rudimentary work that should have been done a year ago and it will reveal what every party but the NHLPA has long accepted -- that a few wealthy clubs, including the Maple Leafs, Philadelphia Flyers and New York Rangers -- make good money. Another handful come close.

Two-thirds of the league, meanwhile, is in the red.

The union, having been denied $1 billion US in salaries, is badly fractured. A splinter group that includes Chris Pronger, Jeremy Roenick and others nearly swung an end-run around PA head Bob Goodenow before the season was cancelled.

Throughout the process, players, hundreds of them, have been in contact with the league and with their individual teams. The message flowing from north to south: "Enough already, make a deal!"

Ownership hasn't broken the players' union. For one thing, hockey players are too honourable to sell each other out. For another, the laws of the land, specifically those regarding the use of replacement workers, make destroying a union problematic.

EXHAUSTED

But the players are exhausted and no further ahead than when the previous collective bargaining agreement expired in September.

The concept of an all-or-nothing opposition to the salary cap was a suicidal notion but it was definitive enough. When the players' association conceded the necessity of a cap just before the talks collapsed, the players were left without a platform to contest.

A new, far more moneyed ownership group -- Tom Golisano in Buffalo and Eugene Melnyk in Ottawa come to mind -- were able to outwait the players. The lockout was planned, budgeted for and ruthlessly executed. Except for rumblings from Leafs governor Larry Tanenbaum over the league's inability to make a deal, ownership has maintained a steadfast public face.

Some good will come from all of this.

The players will have succeeded in nudging the league toward more revenue sharing, which, in a league peopled with six Canadian teams and a bunch in the hockey hinterland, is an absolute necessity.

In the end, NHL players will be able to make a superb living with a hand in increased revenues should the game manage to reinvent itself.

Deep dissatisfaction among the paying public about not just the cancellation, but also the quality of the game, has humbled both sides. There will be more impetus to reshape the game, to free up the play and, in the wake of the Todd Bertuzzi attack, to police the game's vigilante culture.

The most noticeable change in the game should include who runs it.

The game will need to move on and jettison both Goodenow and Bettman, the two architects of the labour apocalypse.

Already, there is talk of Goodenow's imminent departure. Good form will prevent him from leaving before a new deal is signed, but the schism inside the union between Goodenow and its rank-and-file millionaires only can result in Goodenow being gone within the year.

Bizarrely, Goodenow will be most responsible for keeping Bettman in office. Ownership won't cashier Bettman until Goodenow is gone, but once he is, they too will reach for a new face. Bettman won't be renewed, not because of this CBA, but because of the past one, and the amount of earth that had to be scorched to fix it.

And so the authors of the disaster will be gone, each having fulfilled their destiny.

For Gary Bettman, that mission was the savage repudiation of a players' union that had convinced itself it was the game. For Bob Goodenow, it was to blindly lead his union into the slaughter.


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