SUN Hockey Pool

Hey, if the cap fits ...

MIKE ULMER -- Toronto Sun

, Last Updated: 6:59 AM ET

I have but one request of the National Hockey League Players' Association. Please, stop reminding me that salary escalation has been triggered by the NHL.

"Salaries," NHLPA executive director Bob Goodenow likes to repeat, "have been set by the owners." Another favourite: "It's not the players who are triggering these problems."

Who is it then, their mothers?

Of course it's the players. Of course it's their agents.

Is a salary cap designed to protect owners from themselves? Is a car seat supposed to keep your kid from hitting the dashboard?

I think NHL commissioner Gary Bettman could go a long way toward ending the stalemate if he began his next pronouncement with the following words.

"Look, I know we're stupid. I mean, dumb as a bag of nails.

"Bob Clarke gave John LeClair $45 million over five years when the best LeClair could have done elsewhere was $28 million over four in Dallas. I could have killed him.

"L.A. gave Jason Allison $20 million for 99 games. Alexei Yashin made $8.4 million last year for 34 points, 35 if you count the playoffs. Don't even mention Alexandre Daigle. Yes, clearly, we are stupid."

But as the philanderer liked to say: Guilty with an explanation.

I'm still waiting for the NHL's first general manager to wake up with the thought: "Gee, this would be a great day to waste some of my boss' money." Maybe Glen Sather, but no one else.

General managers spend money because they are hockey guys first and business guys second. They are negotiating with agents who are, first and foremost, businessmen. They aren't regular guys swimming with sharks. They are regular guys swimming with sharks with racks of freshly slaughtered lamb duct-taped to their limbs.

Owners have, or at least are supposed to have, twin goals: To win and to make money. Those two are often at cross-purposes. Owners such as the Boston Bruins' Jeremy Jacobs are routinely (and this corner is no different) pilloried as cheap when they shun talented older players or fail to line up for the requisite free agents. Remember the gawd-awful roar here when the Maple Leafs stayed out of the free-agent sweepstakes last summer?

Whoever coined the phrase "commitment to winning" should have a plaque in the marketers Hall of Fame right beside the guy who invented Mother's Day and the pre-engagement ring.

Under the commitment-to-winning argument, every owner is supposed to spend every last dime on overpriced big names so the players can cluck their tongue at salary escalation and say "don't blame us, it's the owners."

The general manager can't win unless, of course, he is Lou Lamoriello.

I love it when players point to Lamoriello, the New Jersey Devils GM, as evidence that a team can be run prudently. Agents and players despise Lamoriello for precisely that reason. If they had their way, Lamoriello would be on the island with Gilligan and Thurston Howell III.

Owners, by U.S. law, cannot collude and in the strictest sense of the word, players can't either. But agents can and do meet, compare information and correspond with Goodenow's office to maximize the inflation of the cost of labour. Earth to the NHLPA: If it looks like a duck, quacks like a duck and has webbed feet like a duck, it's a duck.

UNWATCHABLE

A virtually unwatchable game with infinitesimal U.S. television ratings is a much bigger problem than the CBA, no matter how it's arranged. But if we must deal with the money first, let's understand one thing.

The expired CBA is no more about the free market system than a barrel full of trout is about fishing.

If a salary cap is the only way to raise the collective IQ of owners and general managers to something higher than that of a common household plant, then for Pete's sake give it to them, arrange an equitable division of revenues and move on.


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