Don't count on a deal

AL STRACHAN -- Toronto Sun

, Last Updated: 8:26 AM ET

Any move that might lead to greater understanding between the two sides in the National Hockey League labour dispute has to be regarded as a positive development.

But even so, fans shouldn't raise their hopes too high on the basis of tomorrow's meeting.

The central characters in this cozy little get-together are the chairman of the NHL's board of governors, Harley Hotchkiss of the Calgary Flames, and the president of the NHL Players' Association, Trevor Linden.

Since nothing these days can be done without twice as many lawyers as participants, both sides will have a couple of counsels sitting in.

But really, the idea is to see what kind of understanding can be reached between two Western Canadian guys who grew up with hockey in their veins. If they come up with any novel concepts, the lawyers are there to tell them what's workable -- or more likely why it can't be done.

NHL commissioner Gary Bettman will not be there. Neither will NHLPA executive director Bob Goodenow. That gets one conflict out of the way before the festivities even start.

But really, it's more of a meeting to increase understanding than to forge a new deal.

So far, the two sides have met only in highly structured circumstances. One presents its demands and explains all the clauses, sub-clauses and ramifications. The other listens politely, picks up all the papers and takes them off for study.

Then, a considerable amount of time later, that side presents its demands, explains all the clauses and so on. At no time has there been any real across-the-table negotiation, any exchange of views.

Both Linden and Hotchkiss are solid citizens. Those who played for the Flames in the early years when Hotchkiss had a much more hands-on approach, offer nothing but glowing praise when asked about him.

Linden is a down-to-earth Saskatchewan farmboy imbued with admirable values and a sense of decency. That's why he holds such an important position in the NHLPA.

Both men want hockey to return soon, and each is aware that the owners need some relief from the high salaries that make profits difficult in many markets.

Their differences have to do with the way that the so-called New World Order should unfold.

Hotchkiss toes the party line which means he wants a hard salary cap. Linden and his colleagues point out with some degree of justification that this is not the Cuban part of North America. Here, we have a free-market system in which you get paid what someone is willing to give you.

Each is bound by a greater master. In Hotchkiss's case, it's Bettman and his promises to give the league's losers a hard cap -- not a workable deal but a hard cap.

AGENDAS

In Linden's case, his constituency has said repeatedly over the past three years that it cannot accept the kind of hard cap that Bettman wants to impose. No other major league has such a system (basketball has a soft cap and football has a cap which rises substantially each year) and hockey doesn't want to be the first to agree to indentured status.

As a result, tomorrow's meeting probably won't produce much in the way of tangible results. Nor is it intended to.

There will be no more offers coming from the players until the NHL presents a counter-proposal to the last two. And if such a counter-proposal should be in the offing, which the league denies, it definitely won't be presented on this occasion.

So Linden and Hotchkiss will merely try learn something about the other's point of view -- and each is the type to listen and genuinely try to understand.

Whether something comes of this meeting or not remains to be seen. But one thing is beyond question. It certainly can do no harm.


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