Thanks, but no thanks

LANCE HORNBY -- Toronto Sun

, Last Updated: 7:22 AM ET

Locked-out National Hockey Leaguers should wear visors today because that 24% rollback offer will be thrown back in their faces. But when commissioner Gary Bettman makes that official at 1 p.m., while rejecting most of a six-point, six-year plan proposed last week by the union, there remains a slim chance to salvage the season.

Bettman and the owners intend to make a counter-proposal at the league's Toronto headquarters, albeit with some form of the contentious salary cap.

Executive director Bob Goodenow and the players, who had offered to shave a quarter of their salaries to kick-start talks, might just leave at that point and the NHL will be off the radar until next autumn, if not longer.

Then again, there might be something in the owners' deal to keep a 40-something-game schedule alive, either a cottony soft cap, a luxury tax on their terms or something that satisfies their aims and minimizes the rollback.

But statements from two members of the owners' ranks and a leaked letter from the league seem to leave little room for optimism.

The drama of the owners' intent at today's meeting was removed by a Sunday Sun story that said Senators owner Eugene Melnyk was against the players' concept. That was the first formal rebuttal of the players' plan, and by yesterday, Edmonton Oilers governor Cal Nichols had called the union's offer "an enticement to carry on doing essentially what we're doing ... the Oilers won't be here long-term if that's what we're prepared to accept."

Later yesterday, TSN obtained a confidential eight-page memorandum sent by the league to all 30 clubs, stating its opposition to the players' platform.

"The union's CBA proposal, while offering necessary and significant short-term financial relief, falls well short of providing the fundamental systemic changes that are required," league executive vice-president Bill Daly wrote to all governors, alternates and many general mangers.

"While the immediate 'rollback' would materially improve league economics for 2004-05, there is virtually nothing in the proposal that would prevent the dollars 'saved' from being redirected right back into the player compensation system (thus re-creating the current imbalance) in only a matter of a couple of years."

The document "cynically" questions the motives of the union, particularly the size of the 24% rollback.

"We believe the union's offer was more about trying to unify the players and ensure player solidarity with what they would perceive as a very substantial proposal than it was about making a good-faith effort to reach agreement with us," Daly wrote. "(The union) needed the 'rallying point' that it felt this offer would provide with the players to effectuate this strategy. Under this scenario, the union will likely (and quickly) break off negotiations."

The leaked memo says the NHL counter-proposal will ask for the complete removal of salary arbitration and a "restructuring" of the 24% rollback. Without going into specifics, the letter promised that Bettman's counter-proposal "will be an appropriate response to the union's offer and will ensure the league's future stability and long-term health."

The union would not comment on the reported leak, though its senior adviser, Ted Saskin, had told Canadian Press earlier that the players' offer could save $500 million during the next few years.

"I found Mr. Melnyk's recent comments puzzling, especially in light of how our proposal would impact his team," Saskin said. "The Senators, with a large number of players under contract for a number of years, have over $10 million in guaranteed reductions to payroll in the first year and over an additional $17 million in the following years. When coupled with the other important system changes being (offered), I fail to see how Ottawa would not be able to manage (its) player budget in a way that does not provide (it) with a significantly lower player cost for the foreseeable future."

Mike Peca of the New York Islanders told CP the union shouldn't have to fix a system that he feels the owners have misused.

"There comes a point when teams need to be accountable for some of the business decisions that they've made," Peca said.

"They want an idiot-proof system where they take that possibility away from their general managers or owners -- owners (who) look at owning a hockey team as just a hobby and not a business entity."


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