SUN Hockey Pool

Lockout about strategy

NHL commissioner Gary Bettman (pictured) and players' association boss Bob Goodenow, each backed by...

NHL commissioner Gary Bettman (pictured) and players' association boss Bob Goodenow, each backed by other high-priced American lawyers, are engaged in a poker game with a $2.1-billion US pot that neither side can afford to lose. (Toronto Sun File/Ernest Doroszuk)

STEVE SIMMONS -- Toronto Sun

, Last Updated: 9:27 AM ET

It seems more than coincidence that poker has taken the place of hockey on television.

Because in simple terms that is what the National Hockey League lockout is all about. A high stakes game of poker being played out by expensive lawyers.

There will be no result, no winner, no loser, until the final card is played.

And if you're wondering, like a lot of people are wondering, why the players and the owners are not negotiating, why they aren't locked in a room somewhere to hammer this out, you have to understand the rules of engagement -- and the legal implications involved.

We will attempt, courtesy of the advice of a few good lawyers, to best explain.

The interpretative truth of the matter is the two sides aren't talking because they can't talk. Because they've been instructed by their lawyers not to talk. Because neither side can afford to slip up.

LABOUR LAW

Confused?

It's easy to be. This has nothing to do with hockey, salary caps, luxury taxes, revenue sharing or any of the great buzz words the good people on either side of the lockout would have you believe. This is about strategy.

Labour law strategy and outcome.

One mistake -- one little mistake by either side, one wrong card played -- can end up in defeat for either the players or the owners.

And at the end of the day -- and we don't know when that day will be -- the most important factor in determining when, where and how hockey is played again could well turn out to the National Labour Relations Board in the United States.

These are initials you will need to know soon: Not NHL but NLRB.

Which is just perfect in a cynical and disturbing kind of way. A U.S. labour organization and an American commissioner and an American union leader and all kinds of very smart and very nasty American legal minds will determine when Canada gets to see NHL hockey again.

If you hated Gary Bettman and Bob Goodenow yesterday, you may detest each of them just a little bit more today.

What happens now, which nothing is happening, is just part of the dance heading toward a legal term called impasse. At least that's the best predication of what's going on.

With the NHL claiming, at some point down the road, that they have attempted in good faith to make a deal and cannot get one done. That explains, to a point, why the PA won't negotiate. If it seems like the union is negotiating, then the NHL owners can use it to their advantage. If they don't negotiate, then they can turn around themselves and accuse the NHL of not negotiating.

Same thing with hiring auditors. The PA won't accept the independent audit the NHL commissioned. The league offered the PA to do their own. They chose not to.

Why?

Because if they have the figures, actual or not, they don't want to admit the system has problems. It's a $2.1 billion US hand of poker and this won't be winner take all.

It will, almost certainly, come down to legal interpretations and judgments and every time an owner opens up his mouth, the way Atlanta Thrashers owner Steve Belkin did this week, the PA must be applauding in the background.

This isn't about blinking first.

This is about executing a game plan without error.

This is a legal tap dance and the music plays on.


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