December 3, 2004
Owners can end this debacle
By AL STRACHAN -- Toronto Sun
Is there cause for optimism? Yes.
Can fans assume the logjam is about to crack and that hockey will soon be returning?
Not by any means.
The fact the National Hockey League Players' Association is going to present a new offer to the owners next week is an indication that at least one side in the dispute isn't determined to throw away the season.
But the owners have been pig-headed and recalcitrant so far. There is no guarantee they'll suddenly discard the habits of decades and exhibit some common sense.
The PA will indeed be making a new offer, but it won't be of a radical nature. It will not represent any philosophical change and, therefore, it will not involve a hard salary cap.
But what the players want to do is make an appeal to the full complement of owners, not just a half-dozen hard-liners selected by commissioner Gary Bettman.
Most reasonable people who saw the PA's last offer thought it merited serious consideration by the league. But it didn't get it.
Bettman and his domesticated orcs scanned it, looking for a salary-cap proposal. Seeing none, they tossed it aside.
But the players want to make the point to the owners that if the league gives greater priority to teams like Nashville, Florida and Carolina than to teams like Toronto, Detroit and Philadelphia, then it's time to rethink the priorities.
Bettman consistently has said the players have to recognize the league's problems and to work as partners to fix them by accepting a salary cap.
When the players talk to the owners next week, they will probably say something along the lines of: "Yes, we recognize your problems and yes, we can work as partners to fix them. But we don't agree that a salary cap is the answer."
At that point, they'll unveil their new proposal. As the last one did, it will offer some form of luxury tax, immediate salary reductions and entry-level rollbacks.
NHLPA president Trevor Linden has been saying for months that this is the path his associates will follow, and he isn't likely to reverse his stance now.
But it's important to realize the players don't want to negotiate against themselves, so their offer won't stray very far from the last one.
The procedure started with the owners demanding a hard cap. The players rejected the concept and offered their proposals. The owners turned them down and countered with the same hard cap.
If the players were to make a radical move now, they would be negotiating against themselves, and they are far too smart to do that.
Secondly, when this dispute is stripped down to its barest of essentials, it is not a battle between the players and the owners.
It is a battle between owners and owners.
Bettman knows the owners don't trust each other to show sanity in their contractual dealings, so he wants to take away their right to negotiate.
He has proposed a system whereby the league would negotiate directly with players, thereby cutting out agents and general managers.
He also wants a salary cap that prevents owners from bidding for players after they have spent their allotted amount.
He distrusts his owners. He does not feel they can operate within a budget so he intends to impose a budget and operate it for them.
If the owners continue to abrogate their freedom of choice, as they did when they gave Bettman their support to start this needless lockout, it won't matter how generous the players' concessions might be.
But if the owners look closely at the NHLPA's proposals at next week's meetings, most of them should be able to see that they can make them work.
And then the lockout can end.