Now that everyone is scared, let's talk

KEN FIDLIN -- Toronto Sun

, Last Updated: 7:03 AM ET

The conditions are just about right. Every nano-droplet of optimism is gone. Even the few holdout Pollyannas of the press are now painting the blackest of scenarios for the state of hockey's collective bargain process.

For months, even years, the NHL and its players have been sniping from afar, both sides aware they were heading for a watershed confrontation. Make no mistake: This was always going to be ugly.

The declaration of a lockout by the owners was a foregone conclusion that shocked no one. Been there, done that. Now, three months later, they are steering into an area where everyone on both sides should be uneasy. Scared, even.

The threshold for declaring the NHL season lost -- an unprecedented gamble -- is fast approaching and, as is always the case at these moments, there seems to be not a shred of hope.

So, now the stage is set. Negotiations can begin.

See, what has happened until now can't be considered negotiations. Call it what you want -- posturing, blustering, bluffing, posing. Whatever it is, it hasn't been negotiating.

Not even the proposals tabled this past week, first by the players and then by the owners, can be considered part of the negotiations. You can argue that it's part of the process, but nobody on either side could seriously believe that what they put on the table was the basis of an agreement.

The noise level on both sides reached a peak this week and that's a good thing. Each camp slammed the other from various vantage points and a lot of people had a good rant. Nobody should have been shocked at some of the things that were said with the possible exception of that big stiff Bobby Holik. Can you imagine the gall of this guy, pulling down nearly $9 million US a year under false pretences, yapping off at anybody?

The players were offended that their offer of an immediate salary rollback was dismissed out of hand. It was a bold public relations move, however, and got a lot of people excited for a short while.

'IDIOT INSURANCE'

It didn't, however, begin to address the owners' core issue, which is cost certainty. The so-called "idiot insurance" has to be a part of an agreement to save the owners from themselves.

Likewise, the owners' response had no chance and they knew it. Indeed, the transparency of their attempt to split the players into haves and have-nots was such an insult to the players' collective intelligence as to draw the union tighter together in its resolve never to allow a salary cap.

Be that as it may, it's time to cut through all the crap and get it done. It may seem that there is a climate of unresolvable rancour hanging over the process right now but that, too, seems to be a necessary condition for both sides to start to feel some urgency.

A deadline is looming. And unless something is done in the next three weeks or so, the season will be lost and that is something the NHL can't afford to let happen.

If there was anything useful to be gleaned from the proposals that were so publicly debated this week, it is the knowledge that there isn't that much money separating the two sides.

If they can put aside the macho posturing for a week or two, go someplace quiet and figure out how to call a salary cap by some other less threatening name, then hockey can be played this season.

Whether the players want to admit it or not, they are going to have to get their heads wrapped around a salary cap, in some form. The only satisfactory resolution is a system where salaries are tied to a percentage of revenue. If the players don't agree now, then such a system will be imposed next year or the year after. If they were willing to negotiate it now, they could probably trade it for early free agency, say at the age of 27 or 28.

They can accept that fact and go back to work or they can hold stubbornly to the belief that ownership will cave as it always has in the past.

The suspicion here is that, for the first time, Gary Bettman has his people all singing from the same hymn book.

Cliches are always handy at times like these and the one that comes to mind is "It's always darkest before the dawn."

Sounds like the mantra of a smart labour lawyer.


Videos

Photos