Takin' care of business

RANDY SPORTAK -- Calgary Sun

, Last Updated: 6:53 AM ET

"It's not personal, it's business." It's a favourite phrase around contract talks.

Then there's the other standby: "It's the business side of the game."

How often have you heard a hockey player say that?

NHL players are now on the receiving end of that mantra and they don't like it one bit.

But until they accept the business as the owners see it, we'll continue to ride the merry-go-round that spun us dizzy over the last week.

"This is a business issue that has to be solved in a business-type way," NHL commissioner Gary Bettman said yesterday, shortly after rejecting the NHLPA's offer which included a 24% rollback.

Shortly after, players' association head Bob Goodenow rejected the league's counter-proposal, which included a salary cap.

It's becoming increasingly clear that, if a deal is to be struck, it will include cost certainty.

Bettman and the owners won't settle for anything less.

Nearly a week ago, fans, players, media and likely the owners were caught offguard by the NHLPA's proposal that included a rollback of nearly a quarter of all players salaries, changes to the arbitration system, limits on rookie salaries and bonuses plus a luxury tax.

It was splashy and headline grabbing.

Moreover, it was an admission the league has financial problems that must be cured.

For a fleeting moment, too, there was hope -- but that optimism is now gone.

Today, there are no new negotiation sessions planned and no reason to believe the two sides can reach an agreement to save a season.

So what went wrong?

The NHLPA proposal would immediately bring down salaries and build mechanisms to allow the league to keep its financial house in order.

Unfortunately, one critical component was missing: The guarantee.

The NHLPA won't promise it's willing to help ensure costs remain down, nor will it take a further cut if the league's suffers a further reduction in revenue.

Sure, the players will grudgingly accept a pay cut of that magnitude and say they're willing to provide even more stringent levers for the owners.

But they aren't willing to provide cost certainty for the people who've made them all rich men. Instead, they expect those who sign the cheques to do it themselves.

But look to baseball where salaries continue to shoot out of the stratosphere in New York because the Yankees can pay their luxury tax without blinking, while killing the hopes and dreams of small-market clubs in Kansas City, Milwaukee and Montreal.

Look at what's gone in the NHL before, where the New York Rangers, Toronto Maple Leafs, Detroit Red Wings and Philadelphia Flyers spend like a teen with a daddy-paid credit card.

Just because the owners could keep salaries in line doesn't mean they will -- and that's the fundamental problem.

The players tried, gave a good effort, to come up with a solution.

In the end, it's a solution that works best for them.

The NHL owners are instead sticking to their guns, steadfastly refusing to accept anything less than what they've been asking for all along. It's business all right, the business of sports in what's becoming a new era.

Life in almost every other business out there, with budgets (hard salary caps) that don't change until the bottom line grows.

The players are the game and deserve credit for it. But the owners supply the game, take the responsibility when things go sour and deserve the good that comes with success.

And the way it looks now, unless those who chase pucks are willing to take the risk, cover the losses or run it themselves, this won't be solved without a cap.

It's not personal.

It's just business.


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