They're whistling a new tune in the lockout trenches, not quite the Hockey Night In Canada theme, but more pleasant to the ears than three months of bombast. After gutter rhetoric began earlier in the week as the projected drop dead date for games this season approached, the National Hockey League Players Association yesterday "invited" the league to hear its much anticipated new proposal.
In a letter sent to Bettman in New York, NHLPA executive director Bob Goodenow said his team "is working on a new proposal which it believes should provide the basis for a new collective bargaining agreement. Almost three months have passed since the players made their (most recent) proposal and we have yet to receive a counter-offer. We have been working hard at other creative solutions and believe our new proposal will provide a basis to end the owners' lockout and resume NHL hockey."
The olive branch was quickly accepted by commissioner Gary Bettman and his chief legal officer, Bill Daly, who have agreed to meet the union's CBA committee on its Toronto turf on Thursday, with Friday kept open for more debate if talks go well.
"We're hopeful the offer will be a meaningful effort to address the league's economic problems," Daly said in a statement. "When we receive the proposal, we will evaluate it closely and respond appropriately."
But no one should assume any change in the stubborn stance both parties adopted for two years prior to this 79-day lockout. A significant portion of the hockey world believes the players will not yield on their opposition to a salary cap, but offer to increase an immediate salary rollback from their 5% plan up to 10%, give back on entry-level salaries and try and make their luxury tax more palatable. Daly said he would be open minded.
"Not that a luxury tax would work, but we're not going to walk away from the table just because there's one in the offer," he said. "What we're looking for is a legitimate effort by the union that we feel addresses our issues."
But unless the owners have suddenly lost faith in Bettman, any deal that doesn't ultimately have a cap will be tossed back, effectively scrapping the 2004-05 season.
NHLPA vice-president Daniel Alfredsson confirmed to the Ottawa Sun that the union's new offer won't contain a cap, but the Senators winger is convinced once the details have been completed it is "a legitimate offer that can save the season."
"This is not a public-relations stunt," added fellow VP Bill Guerin of the Dallas Stars. "We've put a lot of work into this proposal and this isn't something we came up with overnight. We felt that we had to do something. We're getting down to crunch time and since the league isn't doing anything, we felt like we'd better do something before the whole season goes down the tubes. We've waited long enough for them to try to step up."
If the league rejects the new offer, the whole exercise would at least have made the players look conciliatory at the last minute so they could sleep soundly whenever the season is officially whacked.
The two sides haven't held formal talks since Sept. 9 and at least getting in the same room is better than nothing. Goodenow, with a history of being a "deadline hunter," could fatten his batting average if this leads to a deal.
Even low-level discussions would be enough to push back a perceived mid-December deadline. That's what happened in the 103-day lockout in 1994, when the CBA buzz was kept alive by a series of back-door efforts through mid- December that paved the way for a Jan. 11 deal and the start of a 48-game schedule shortly after.
Sources told the Ottawa Sun the new offer's highlights could also include:
- A stiffer luxury tax than the one proposed on Sept. 9 with realistic thresholds starting at around $40 million US and larger fines for teams that spend more than $60 million.
- A change to the arbitration system that's more favourable for the owners. One possibility is a baseball-type system where the NHLPA gives a number, the team gives a number and the arbitrator must choose one or the other.
- There also could be a change with the rookie salary cap placed at $850,000 and a lower bonus structure put in place.
Bettman heard about the offer just as he and Daly hosted a dinner for league general managers.
"It's hard to predict what may or may not transpire next week," Leafs' GM John Ferguson said. "But this is not an unwelcome development."