Ice hardens on NHL talks

JIM KERNAGHAN -- London Free Press

, Last Updated: 6:35 AM ET

After Gary Bettman rhetorically high-sticked Bob Goodenow and Goodenow responded with a verbal slash, you could say The Winter of Discontent officially began. Or should that be Malcontent?

It was several hours before this morning's 12:01 official National Hockey League lockout of its players that each went to his own personal penalty box without an agreement replacing the old collective bargaining agreement, trading insults as they went.

The NHL commissioner and the NHL Players' Association executive director at least agreed on one thing. There will be no NHL games in the foreseeable future.

After months, actually years of posturing over salary caps, fiscal responsibility and their abiding love of the game, the two most important guys in it left the next most important people -- the fans -- wondering what's next.

What's next is an altered diet of pucks. True fans of the game have an opportunity to see more junior, senior and university hockey. TV fans will learn about places such as Syracuse and Binghamton and the players who perform in the AHL.

So, what happened to send thousands of full- and part-time workers in arenas, media outlets, shops and travel agencies and myriad others around the league to the sidelines along with the fans?

Bettman was at pains in his address and an interview session later to make it clear the 20 money-losing franchises in the 30-team league would be better off not operating than continuing at a ruinous pace. The commish "respectfully suggested" a number of times that Goodenow negotiates "by confrontation."

For his part, Goodenow charged Bettman's approach to talks was "my way or the highway" and accused Bettman of fostering confrontation. You almost expected to hear one of them shout "yer mother wears army boots."

These guys were just partners in the hugely successful World Cup of Hockey.

The suspicion here is that the seeds of the impasse were sown 10 years ago when the previous agreement was signed after a lockout cut the 1993-94 season in half. As a signatory to that player-friendly deal, Goodenow learned first-hand what coming down on the wrong side of an agreement can mean.

However you want to word the mechanics of it, the issue is about a salary cap. The league wants it for fiscal certainty that would drop the average salary to $1.1 million from $1.8 million.

Goodenow and his players don't want to one day find themselves caught way down professional sport's pay ladder.

The entire stoppage is not unlike other industries. Each side is entrenched and exhibits an ebullience born of a sense of moral rectitude.

It doesn't take long before the defiance of pickets on the sidewalk and the guys looking out the window at them from quiet offices are replaced by morose glances.

You could go on ad infinitum about each side's case.

Bettman says the league's survival depends on a cap.

Goodenow says the league should open its books.

In the end, what both ought to be concerned about is what the fans say. Baseball's following took a terrific hit after its work stoppage. There already is a sizable group of hockey fans who don't like the way the game is being played.

"I believe the fans will come back," Bettman said. "It might take time. We might have to re-earn their hearts and affections."

Goodenow's response to the Bettman news conference came with his own, 1 1/2 hours later. As expected, he echoed Bettman's charge of not bargaining in good faith.

Faith is in short supply nowadays among the folks who count.

People who only wish to see their favourite teams and players tend to have little patience while a group of millionaire players do battle with a group of multimillionaire owners.

When the warring parties speak of hockey as being the greatest sport in the world, it automatically sparks the comment once made by Toronto Maple Leafs founder Conn Smythe.

It must be, to survive the people who are running it.

PLAYERS' POSITION

Willing to accept an immediate five-per-cent wage rollback on the full term of all existing contracts, more than $100 million US in savings. Will accept changes to entry level system resulting in annual savings of $60 million. Proposed luxury tax for teams that exceed agreed-upon salary costs. Willing to modify revenue-sharing plan in order to distribute money from high-revenue to low-revenue clubs.

OWNERS ' POSITION

Want salary cap, saying the league needs a framework that guarantees player costs won't eat up more than 50 per cent of league revenues. NHL says player costs consumed 75 per cent of league revenues last season, resulting in $224 million US in total losses.


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