More puzzling negotiations

KEN FIDLIN -- Toronto Sun

, Last Updated: 8:50 AM ET

The most surprising thing about today's little get-together of sub-lieutenants in the NHL's collective bargaining fiasco is somebody felt compelled to put out a press release on it.

Some guys are going to lock themselves in a room and, you know, kick around a few ideas. No agenda. No formalities. Maybe even speak the truth, if you can believe that. Not that this is a bad thing. In fact, it's the kind of forum where somebody might just find the cure.

My problem is that, like a dummy, I believed these behind-the-scenes, informal discussions had been going on ever since the lockout began.

I was presuming that all kinds of people on both sides had been kicking around ideas over a beer or coffee, or just over the phone, for months now.

In a rational world, what in the name of Alexander Graham Bell would have stopped Trevor Linden from calling Harley Hotchkiss to shoot the breeze? "How's the family and, by the way ..." Heaven forbid that in a moment of brainstorming, somebody have a fresh idea.

The problem is, of course, the iron grip of the kamikaze control freaks -- Bob Goodenow and Gary Bettman -- engaged in this irreconcilable game of chicken.

But, if you let some less hawkish voices loose on both sides, we'd bet that soon enough they would gravitate to the notion of a true partnership, which is the only pragmatic way out of this mess. The answer is simple: Negotiate a division of revenues and then collaborate to figure out how to make those revenues grow. That way, everybody wins and has a stake in making the entertainment package the best it can be.

The traditional notion of employer and employee doesn't work in the NHL. The employees are not just tools used to create the product, as are the employees in most industries. In the NHL, the employees are the product.

Unless the players and the owners can come to a meeting of the minds on this concept, then a major disaster is inevitable, especially in the markets where hockey is barely hanging on.

By the same token, it's hard to understand the lemmings on the owners' side who profess blind allegiance to Bettman's "cost-certainty" mantra. Last week Carolina Hurricanes owner Peter Karmanos said he's willing to wait two years for that to become a reality.

What I don't understand is that the generally accepted cost threshold Bettman wants to institute is based upon a $35-million US (or thereabouts) salary cap. Well, Karmanos' team last year had a payroll of $37.8 million, not that much more than Bettman's notion of Nirvana.

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So how does the Bettman program, if adopted, save the Hurricanes from a financial bloodbath, especially if they have to create a fan base from scratch again after two years without hockey?

On the other hand, how much longer can Goodenow expect to maintain his hold on the hearts and minds of his union members? An average NHL player has a small window to make it big. Indeed, there are probably dozens of players whose dreams of playing in the NHL even for a season or two have been shattered by this labour impasse. Their windows of opportunity will have come and gone while the rinks are dark.

Others, already established in the league, are seeing their few good earning years being eaten up by a stupid impasse.

Where Goodenow's doctrine is going to be put to the test is with the young up-and-comers on the cusp of making big bucks and with the foot soldiers with limited shelf life. The clock is ticking and they know it. The average salary last year was $1.8 million. In Gary Bettman's world, the average salary would be capped at $1.3 million. Now that's a big cut, but how long can you convince players making little or nothing in a work stoppage that making $1.3 million in the NHL is unacceptable?

Sounds like a conflict that might be resolved by reasonable men willing to talk it out over a cold one. But, yeah, we know, that's just crazy.


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