SUN Hockey Pool

Owners at fault this time

MORRIS DALLA COSTA -- London Free Press

, Last Updated: 9:11 AM ET

National Hockey League owners could never control themselves.

They couldn't when it came to offering exorbitant salaries to players. They couldn't when it came to unwise expansion.

Even though they are supposedly partners in business, they don't care about their weakest partners.

Now they can't control their desire to break the NHL Players' Association and as a result will do irreparable damage to the sport.

Commissioner Gary Bettman is expected to announce the cancellation of the 2004-05 season tomorrow after the union and owners failed to come up with a collective bargaining agreement.

This should hardly be news. This has been coming for a while. It ceased being about an agreement long ago.

It ceased being about a settlement when the owners didn't jump at a union proposal to roll back salaries 24 per cent on all existing contracts. No doubt further negotiations would have forced further concessions from the union. It would have been a great starting point.

Even if the owners didn't get a hard salary cap, they would have had a considerable reduction in salaries. Once a CBA was reached, the owners could go about doing what they claim they wanted from Day 1 of negotiations and that's control their costs.

But the owners weren't interested in that. That would have meant they would still have had to control their own spending and they've proved they can't. That's why they want cost certainty, a hard salary cap. They can't trust themselves to act responsibility so they want to be forced to act responsibly, even if it's on the players' backs.

And since the union isn't going to give in on a salary cap, the owners see only one way to win. They have to destroy the union and in the process do further damage to the game and its image.

Who paid big salaries and multi-year contracts to players like Alexei Yashin, Sergei Federov, Eric Lindros, Keith Tkachuk, Kevin Hatcher, Bobby Holik and Joe Sakic?

Who voted for franchises in Atlanta, Miami, Anaheim, Phoenix, Tampa, Raleigh, N.C., and Nashville, teams that are in trouble financially and Bettman says can't exist unless there is cost certainty?

Who refused to establish a significant revenue-sharing plan to help weaker franchises they care so much about?

Who can look at their bottom line, compare it to the salary being requested by a player and say no because it simply doesn't make sense?

And most important, who controls the purse strings -- the money, the jack in this deal?

As owners, you already control the business. Control the money and you control the system.

The owners were just beginning to get it right. Salaries had increased only two per cent over the last year of the old CBA because owners finally learned to say no. Players who thought they could command fat contracts were finding money was no longer available. And owners were finding that if they didn't spend that money for players, it wasn't going to be the end of the world.

It's taken 15 years for irresponsible ownership, poor business decisions and a failure to change the game to ruin the NHL. Did they think they could say "salary cap" and fix all the problems?

The NHL has grown from 21 teams in 1991 to 30 today, and the owners reaped $570 million U.S. in expansion fees, thanks in large part to Bettman. They spent that lavishly on players, but it was only one-time money. Now there's no more and many of those franchises are in trouble.

The NHL will become the first major professional league in North America to cancel an entire season. Bettman said the pain the league will undergo is necessary to get a salary cap.

Will he be singing the same tune when the NHL comes back by Christmas next year without markets in the United States, an inferior product and franchises worth $120 million in the league before the lockout that are valued at less than half that figure?

He may bust the union in the long run, along with the sport he says he wants to protect.


Videos

Photos