SUN Hockey Pool

Owners stick to initial game plan

AL STRACHAN -- Toronto Sun

, Last Updated: 8:21 AM ET

Although everyone directly involved in the hockey world still is hoping that Trevor Linden's initiative will lead to some form of settlement, the voice of reason says that it won't.

Certainly, Linden's efforts are to be applauded. He personally kickstarted the moribund negotiation process and, although it now appears that his efforts will bear no fruit, they definitely did not do any harm.

But all the evidence points to the fact that the people who are running the National Hockey League do not want a settlement unless it's a total capitulation on the part of the players. And that is not about to happen.

For more than a month, the owners sat on the players' December offer, producing no substantial counter-proposal of their own and steadfastly insisting that no such counter-proposal was to be forthcoming.

Is that a sign of a group that wants to find a settlement?

If Linden's efforts were eventually to lead to some sort of resolution, the questions fans would then logically ask are: Why did it take so long? Why did you waste a month? And, why did it take a player to do the job of the commissioner and his acolytes?

No matter how much of a lid NHL commissioner Gary Bettman tries to keep on the proceedings, stories trickle out.

One of them -- the one that is supported by all the evidence -- is that the NHL never had the slightest intention of playing this season. Years ago, they started setting aside money to create a $300-million US war chest that will keep them in champagne and caviar for the year.

CRAWLING BACK?

They decided -- and still believe -- that after a year of inactivity, the players will come crawling back.

They set what appeared to be an impossibly low target of a $31-million US average salary cap, secure in the knowledge that the players would not agree.

But the NHL Players' Association countered with Bettman's worst-case scenario.

"Fine," they said. "You want $31 million a team? We'll have to roll back our salaries by 24% but we'll do it. You're worried about systemic inflation? We'll take away the pressure points. We'll drop the mandatory 10% raises for free agents earning below the average. We'll impose a salary cap on entry-level players. We'll allow teams to take players to arbitration."

And there it was. The payroll level Bettman had demanded was offered on a platter. Along with it came a workable system that would have prevented the previous inflation levels (7% over the past five years but only 2% last year) from coming back into the picture.

Bettman had said he wanted the players to understand the owners' problems and to work with them to find a solution.

That's exactly what the players did.

But Bettman spurned that solution. It was a workable formula, but Bettman hastily turned it down saying that his figures showed that the players' offer would lead to a 12% inflation rate.

The players held a press conference two days later to blast Bettman's assertions into smithereens and the league has not been heard from since.

And just to make matters worse, in his rejection of the players' offer, Bettman suggested that the salary rollback should fall more heavily on the higher-paid players, a transparent attempt to divide the union that instead cemented the players' resolve.

If the league really wanted a settlement, it would have grabbed that offer from the players and signed as quickly as possible. At worst, it would have used that offer as a starting point for negotiations.

It did neither, for the simple reason that the plan is what it always has been -- to shut down for a year.

And all Linden's best efforts can't overcome that.


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