SUN Hockey Pool

Players are doing their part

AL STRACHAN -- Toronto Sun

, Last Updated: 7:08 AM ET

The offer that the National Hockey League Players' Association is to present today may not be the last hope for a season.

But it's pretty close to it.

First of all, there is the time restraint. Even if the owners were to accept the offer on sight -- which they won't because they have more items on their agenda than merely staging a season -- the schedule would be tight.

NHL commissioner Gary Bettman has said that once the basic terms of a new collective bargaining agreement are hammered out, he needs 45 days to get the league rolling.

He's exaggerating of course, but that's hardly stop-the-presses material. As it happens, it is just as well because realistically, mid-January is the latest a season could begin and that's now 36 days away.

But because Bettman cares more about legalities than hockey, he'll act accordingly. After he and the owners staged their 1994 lockout, they started the 48-game season before all the fine points of the CBA had been duly lawyered. Bettman says that won't happen this time, so if the season is to be saved, the settlement has to come quickly.

The players are virtually ready to roll. They have been staying in shape, either by working out on their own or by being involved with European club teams.

A brief training camp with a few exhibition games is all they will need to get to the level that is necessary to start the season.

So, just from a purely logistical point of view, this is probably the last gasp for any hope of salvaging the season.

But there's another aspect that has to be considered, and that is the attitude of the two sides.

This latest overture is either going to bring them closer to a settlement or it's going to push them further apart. And if it's the latter, then time will run out long before the gap can be narrowed again.

Right now, it is clear the players want to hammer out a settlement. They have put a lot of work into this proposal and they have tried to find a way to come to terms with the problems facing the owners.

Their opening stance is a significant pay cut, and there aren't many unions that do that, even in the most trying economic times.

But there has been no indication on the part of the owners that they want a negotiated settlement. Even though Bettman likes to say that he's "willing to negotiate any time, anywhere," the fact of the matter is he has shown not even the slightest willingness to negotiate.

In effect, his repeated statement to the union is, "It's a hard cap or we're not interested."

That's not negotiation.

That's an ultimatum.

The players' previous proposal offered a decent framework for negotiation. It contained concrete proposals the owners could have used to their advantage.

They could have taken the union's position as a starting point and then battled to get even more favourable percentages in the areas the union had opened up for discussion.

Instead, they rejected the entire package out of hand because it did not contain a hard salary cap.

Bettman said the two sides were "not talking the same language."

The players are trying to make a fair offer to save the game but they have no intention of being victimized. If the owners simply show the same disdain they exhibited last time, the players will react as they do when they get pushed around on the ice. They will dig in their heels and fight back.

BREAK THE UNION

They have long suspected it is not the owners' intention to come to an accommodation. The owners want nothing less than to break the union.

The players won't allow that and they won't allow the prospect of a lengthy lockout to deter them. Anyone who knows hockey players knows they are not easily intimidated.

So if the owners don't act in a responsible fashion this time, they'll probably have thrown away the last hope for a season.


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