Is the NHL dead set on angling for an impasse? That was the question raised by Ottawa lawyer Larry Kelly yesterday, as the clock ticks closer to an NHL board of governors meeting set for Jan. 14 in New York.
Kelly, one of the league's most powerful agents with more than 60 clients, told the Sun he believes the season can be saved if the owners realize the deal proposed by the NHL Players' Association can work.
But Kelly is concerned NHL commissioner Gary Bettman and the owners may have another agenda -- to try to declare impasse and break the union by bringing in replacement players next September, with a new collective bargaining agreement imposed.
'THERE'S STILL TIME'
"There's still time to make something happen and to get back to playing hockey," said Kelly. "You hope that something can be done here in the next few weeks because not having a hockey season isn't good for anybody.
"Can't (the owners) see the damage that is being done to the game with what's happening right now? It's going to be even worse if they lose the whole season. The offer the players made was a good one that can be worked with. You look at what's happening right now and you wonder. Teams like the Boston Bruins have so few NHL players signed and you wonder if there isn't another plan that's already been made?"
Kelly is right about one thing: The Bruins wouldn't be ready to start a season if there is one because they have only 11 players signed to NHL contracts.
The Washington Capitals (14 players signed) and New York Rangers (15) are in similar situations.
The NHL Players Association offered a 24% rollback on all existing contracts last month, but the league replied with a salary cap between $34-$38 million and the two sides haven't held any negotiations since Dec. 15.
There is talk the NHL and the union are both reworking their offers to make presentations in the next week, but sources couldn't confirm yesterday if that's the case.
Does Kelly believe the league's plan is impasse?
"I'm not going to make any comments beyond those," said Kelly, a partner in Octagon Hockey.
Sources say Bettman won't officially cancel the season during the meeting in New York, but the date of the session has been timed to put pressure on the union to get back to the bargaining table.
A league source insists that if Bettman wants to declare an impasse with the National Labour Relations Board in the United States, he can't cancel the season because the league has to appear it bargained in good faith.
"What's going to happen is the season will just go away," said a league source.