Gary Bettman and Bob Goodenow are dreaming of a spite Christmas, the prelude to cancellation of the National Hockey League season.
With both owners and players rejecting each others proposals yesterday, the sides remain as far apart as their respective leaders' inverted initials. The fruitless 3 1/2-hour meeting at NHL headquarters is likely the last negotiation before the New Year, leaving just two weeks in January for a miracle collective bargaining agreement before all hope to play before the autumn of 2005 is gone.
"Fatally flawed," is how commissioner Bettman described the players' latest offer, though he called the 24% salary rollback offer a good start and applied it to a graduated scale as part of a league counter-offer. He compared the players' proposal to a jack-in-the-box where you stuff the head inside, take two cranks and it pops out.
"We don't want to reset the (salary) dial just to see it set off again," Bettman said. "The time for guesswork is over."
He contended that any savings to the league under the players' six-point plan would evaporate within a year or two, taking into account inflation and lack of a proper economic system to support it.
Union executive director Goodenow, who addressed the media after Bettman spoke, fired back that the league's numbers, particularly its 12.1% inflation rate figure, "were wildly unreliable, using an assortment of mostly made-up numbers from a variety of different time periods. These projections are completely useless and phoney."
Goodenow, flanked by members of his player executive committee, complained Bettman did not give the players' plan as much attention as trying to sell the league's counterproposal, with its contentious salary cap.
"In short," Goodenow said, "the league took elements they liked from our proposal, changed others in their favour, added new mechanisms skewed against the players and then slapped a salary cap on top of everything.
"The league continues to demand a system in which owners and general managers take no responsibility for properly running their clubs."
In a move designed to woo the union's rank and file, Bettman's scale would not touch the salaries of the 349 players making $800,000 US or less, while a further 191 who make up to $1.499 million would be hit for 15%. But the crack in the union that many believe Bettman is trying to create by forcing the lockout into next season still was not evident yesterday.
"We're stronger now than at any time," NHLPA vice-president Bob Boughner said. "If anything, what happened (yesterday) has made us a tight-knit group. I've never been more confident that we'll stick together.
"We thought (Bettman) would bring something different to the table, but he drove the sides farther apart.
Bettman stayed consistent that revenue and player salaries must be linked and said that the owners' plan would give the players 54% of hockey-related revenue. He claimed to have calculated that the players' plan would give them 56.6% of revenue, but that supposedly narrow difference was once again dismissed as a league distortion by Goodenow.
Bettman didn't get into a salary cap, but spoke of a "salary range" for each team of $34.6 million to $38.6 million. The players insist a luxury tax system such as that employed by Major League Baseball is a viable alternative.
"It all depends on how you manage your team," NHLPA vice-president Bill Guerin said.
Neither side committed to further meetings with more than 400 games lost.
"The definition of precipice is in the eye of the beholder," Bettman said cryptically when asked again about salvaging some of this hockey season.
"This is about getting the right deal."