SUN Hockey Pool

One NHL GM has hope

AL STRACHAN -- Toronto Sun

, Last Updated: 8:11 AM ET

Although there is a widely held belief that the National Hockey League's governors will decide to cancel the season at their Jan. 14 meeting, there is also another possibility.

They could deliver a hard-line response to the offer the players made in mid-December.

This suggestion comes from a general manager, who cannot be identified. NHL commissioner Gary Bettman said at his most recent news conference that if he were able to identify the source of a leak regarding his league's curt dismissal of the players' proposal, that person's career in the NHL would be finished.

If the GM is right, there may be a slim chance to save the season because the implication is that the league will move off the hard-cap stance it has been taking for more than three years.

Once that happens, there is some hope. Until it happens, there is none.

The league certainly would not be running up a white flag. If the governors were to decide to forsake the cap, they would demand a host of other concessions.

They would want an end to guaranteed contracts. They would want an end to arbitration. They would want to apply strict limits to entry-level salaries. They would want to eliminate the bonuses that allowed some young players on their first contract to earn more than twice the league-wide average.

All this would, of course, be over and above the concessions the NHL Players' Association has offered. Those include: A 24% salary reduction; a rollback in entry-level salaries; an end to the mandated 10% increase to maintain the rights of free agents whose salary is below the league average; and changes in the arbitration system.

The players' proposal allows "reverse arbitration," a system whereby a team could initiate an arbitration process. At the moment, only a player has that right.

All of these hypothetical proposals would be hotly disputed by the NHLPA and justifiably so. The PA feels it already has made major concessions and that if the owners can demonstrate as much intelligence as the amount required to cross a street safely, they can make sizable returns on their investments.

But the same problem that caused Bettman to try to institute an idiot-proof hard-cap system remains. No matter how good a deal the owners get, if there is any flexibility in it whatsoever, these so-called partners almost certainly will do everything they can to get the upper hand on each other and, in the process, make the system unworkable. Again.

But even if the governors open the door to negotiation ever so slightly -- which they would do by coming off the hard cap demand -- then there is an opportunity for negotiation.

There has been no negotiation to this point because there is no common ground, no framework.

But if the two sides can agree upon a type of system -- one which does not have a hard cap and is open to market forces -- then the negotiations can begin.

The league can ask for an end to guaranteed salaries and the PA can refuse. The PA can ask for unlimited entry-level bonuses and the league can refuse.

But at least they will be talking and negotiating. At some point, someone will say, "We'll give you what you want in one area if you make a concession to us in another area."

When that happens, the talks get serious. The doors get locked. Chinese food is brought in. Dozens more lawyers are put on alert to join the dozens who already enjoy that status and slowly but surely, an agreement gets hammered out.

It will be satisfactory to neither side. It will have aspects that each side finds downright unpalatable.

But it will be an agreement of some sort and both sides will grit their teeth and accept it.

And then we get to see hockey again.


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