Daly only partially right

AL STRACHAN -- Toronto Sun

, Last Updated: 7:47 AM ET

Most of the time, the National Hockey League bigwigs aren't allowed to comment on any aspect of the lockout.

No wonder. When they do speak, they say something that's either embarrassing to the league -- such as the part-owner of the Atlanta Thrashers saying incorrectly that the league intended to use replacement players next year -- or they make it painfully clear why the labour negotiations are in such a mess.

The recent quotes from Bill Daly, the NHL's executive vice-president and chief legal officer, fall into the latter category.

"Let's be clear," Daly said in a Friday e-mail to Pierre LeBrun of The Canadian Press, "on where the responsibility lies for where we find ourselves today:It lies exclusively at the feet of the union leadership who, despite numerous and repeated approaches by the league over many years, utterly ignored -- and in some cases, knowingly exacerbated -- the financial distress the league was experiencing."

Okay Bill, we'll be clear on that view if you can be clear on another. If I ask for something of yours and you give it to me, how am I more responsible than you?

Have you never heard of the "just say no" concept?

It's not as if the NHL players had any real power to force payment. In fact, the now-expired collective bargaining agreement was more restrictive than that of any of the other major leagues (if anyone still counts the NHL as a major league).

In the NHL, you get a kid when he is 18 and you have him until he is 31. Compare that to football, baseball or basketball where free agency kicks in after four or five years. Or European soccer, where you are always a free agent.

Sure, hockey players were permitted to declare themselves free agents once their contracts expired, but the term was really an oxymoron. They weren't free at all. To maintain the rights to that player, all the team had to do was offer him as much as he made the year before, or 10% more if he were below the league average.

He had nowhere to go unless he filed for arbitration, which he couldn't do until his career was well advanced.

Presumably, it is because some players did so and won their cases that Daly says they are responsible for exacerbating the league's financial distress.

But then again, perhaps if the team submissions weren't so often inept and downright laughable, the players wouldn't have won their cases as often as they did.

So, is Daly suggesting that because the players used the system that was in place in a competent fashion, they are responsible for the league's ills?

If the system was that bad, why did the league renew it twice? Is that the union's fault?

The other way a "free agent" could shed his indentured status to the team that drafted him as an 18-year-old was to have a competing team sign an offer sheet. Then, the team in danger of losing the player could match that contract or collect mandated compensation.

It's a nice theory, but the most recent time it happened was in 1998.

Furthermore, it goes back to the earlier premise. All they had to do was say "No."

At the moment, one of commissioner Gary Bettman's inner sanctum and one of the hardest of the hardliners is Peter Karmanos of the Carolina Hurricanes. He is the one who issued that now-infamous offer sheet in February 1998. After the Detroit Red Wings had said "No" to Sergei Fedorov's contract demands in the fall of 1997, and left him sitting on the sidelines until February '98 to prove they were serious, it was Karmanos who came forth and undermined their efforts with a $38-million US offer sheet. And Detroit matched it.

Does Daly want to lay that "at the feet of the union leadership?"

Daly is right. We should be clear on where the responsibility lies for this mess.

But it's not where he thinks it is.


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