It's a game of 'chicken'

TERRY JONES -- Edmonton Sun

, Last Updated: 6:30 AM ET

TORONTO -- And so the biggest game of ''chicken'' in the history of hockey begins. Actually, only the most naive fan believed Sept. 15 was an actual date in hockey history. This NHL lockout, which officially began at midnight EDT, has been a go for four years when both sides began to built the huge war chests for the absolutely inevitable work stoppage.

There's been no negotiating, only posturing to try and win the public-perception battle when it comes to being good guys and bad guys.

Yesterday was simply a major media day that way. Nothing new was said, but it was all said again with a bigger stage and more emphasis.

And if you were really listening between the lines of every statement, there was the message that both sides are dug in and prepared to go a couple of Christmases before Salary Cap vs. No Salary Cap ends with owners or players blinking.

The NHL board of governors over in New York yesterday voted unanimously to lock the players out. Like it was going to be that they voted 23-7.

Gary Bettman, in the owners corner, was hard sell yesterday. On this side of the border, in the players corner, Bob Goodenow was soft sell.

While Bettman apologized "to our millions of fans and the thousands of people whose livelihoods depend on our game'' mostly the NHL commissioner blasted away.

JUST NO CHOICE

"We had no choice in the face of the union's continued refusal to address economic problems that are clear to everybody but them.

"We will correct this untenable situation the right way - not with Band-Aids and half- measures, but in a way that will ensure the health and excitement of the game for years to come. This game's future depends on getting the right economic system.''

He made no mention, of course, of the fact that what the owners are attempting to do here is legislate against their own stupidity. If they all stuck to the same budget as the Edmonton Oilers are forced to stick to, they'd have cost-certainty, they'd have their salary cap.

"Gary is looking to control the owners' behaviour,'' said Goodenow, stating the obvious.

But Bettman was on the high horse.

"The very future of our game is at stake and the NHL owners are united as never before - determined to do everything humanly possible to bring hockey's economic system into the 21st century. We have no other choice.''

Goodenow predicts if the owners stay on the salary cap course, hockey is headed for a "catastrophe.''

"Unfortunately, the league has rejected all opportunities for compromise, stubbornly insisting that Gary Bettman has the single solution to every problem - a salary cap.''

That said, Goodenow admitted it yesterday in a way that drew a laugh.

While the two sides have met, the long and short of the meetings have gone, as he put it: " 'Anything changed on your side?' 'No, Anything changed on your side?' 'No.'

"Every time we talk to them, they say 'Look, we want a salary cap.' That's what this is all about. That's what this lockout is all about.''

CHEERING FOR THE OWNERS

In Edmonton, you're cheering for the owners to win because then you might see a player stay here past the age of 31 and have a team which most years can't compete for more than the eighth and final playoff position - as long as they're well-managed and wring every single cent out of the public, which is possible.

In Toronto, easily the most NHLPA- friendly market in the country, it's exactly the opposite. Every time a free agent has become available there's been a cry from media and fans alike for the Leafs to go get him.

The NHLPA was trying to tell us yesterday that there is nothing wrong with the competitive balance in the NHL. Straight faced.

Maybe they think somebody in the U.S. will believe that.

And who will win?

A lot of people don't understand that the landscape has changed dramatically since the last time there was a work stoppage.

Then, and in all previous negotiations, the NHLPA was able to convince the membership that no matter how much money was being lost while the players weren't playing, they'd be able to make up for it and then some (huge sums, actually) in the years that followed. That certainly turned out to be true. It's not going to be true this time around.

Now the NHLPA is on defence, not offence. The pendulum is coming back the other way and they're trying to keep as much of what they have now as they can.

For Phase I of this, the NHLPA would be nuts not to find out if the owners will capitulate. Ownership has always capitulated.

I'm betting that this time, however, they won't. The owners have almost insured that by changing the numbers to 75% when they take any votes on the matter. All you need to keep the players locked out are eight teams. Start with Edmonton and Calgary and it's not hard to round up another six.

The War of 2004, I'm convinced, is going to go on until 2006.


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