Players dig in for long haul

LANCE HORNBY -- Toronto Sun

, Last Updated: 7:08 AM ET

The rules of engagement have changed from 1994, but National Hockey League players insist they have the resolve for a prolonged labour war. "We have discussed this situation for a couple of years," NHL Players' Association senior director of business affairs Ted Saskin said on a conference call yesterday.

"All of you know hockey players. They won't get paid, but they will take whatever steps they need (to get an acceptable collective bargaining agreement)."

The previous NHL lockout was ended in early January 1995, just enough time for the league to organize a 48-game face-saving season.

WAR CHEST

But unlike that shutdown, the owners have squirrelled away a war chest of $300 million to $325 million US, enough to see them through cancellation of a full season.

NHL commissioner Gary Bettman, who was seen by many as having caved in during the 1995 stoppage, has a stronger mandate from the owners this time round.

If June 2005 rolls around and the league hasn't put a crack in union solidarity -- and is judged to have bargained in good faith -- there is the possibility it will declare a labour impasse. That could give the NHL legal clearance to restart play on terms very close to what the union has rejected.

"It's an ill-advised strategy and the effects of it could be catastrophic," the NHLPA's executive director, Bob Goodenow, said yesterday.

There's no question the rank and file is in Goodenow's corner as this war of wills begins.

After listening to Bettman say that the union "was trying to instigate a fight" and was "in denial" about the economic woes facing pro hockey, NHLPA president Trevor Linden fired back.

'ABSURD' NOTION

"I can't imagine 700 players wanting to be locked out," the Vancouver Canucks forward said.

"(Bettman's) notion that we don't have a competitive balance in the league is absurd. In the last few years, we've had many different teams in the Stanley Cup final.

"The template in Vancouver is set up properly, a good building and good management," Linden said.

"Our best scenario is to play under the system we have. But we've already offered the league $100 million in rollbacks to 1995 levels."


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