Inaction a bitter betrayal

AL STRACHAN -- Toronto Sun

, Last Updated: 8:05 AM ET

No matter how they try to defend their positions, the fact is that both the National Hockey League and the NHL Players' Association betrayed the trust of the fans.

These two sides had the responsibility of trying to work out a deal to avoid the death of an entire hockey season, a development that strikes not only at the passions of millions of Canadians, but at the economic status of thousands.

They were given a sacred trust. It was their job to represent their constituents and to try to make the game better.

In its own way, each side tried. And if the season absolutely had to be cancelled after they both did everything they possibly could to avert that cancellation, so be it.

FINAL 12 HOURS

But for the final 12 hours, as the minutes remaining before commissioner Gary Bettman's season-ending news conference ticked away, these two sat in their respective enclaves and pouted.

They were like two children holding their breath until they turned blue. But even children know when the game has gone too far.

They repeatedly promised us that that they would do everything possible to bring back the game we love.

Everything except picking up a phone, apparently.

By the wee hours of yesterday morning, the two sides had made significant concessions but still were apart. The league had offered a $42.5-million US salary cap. The union had countered with a $49-million figure.

On the TV panels and in informal hockey-related discussions, the conclusion was the same. These guys are so close now the season can be saved. All they have to do is come to a middle ground around $45 million.

Granted, neither wanted to go there. The league said the figure was too high -- even though no one was forcing any team to spend that much money. It was a maximum, after all, not a minimum. If you don't have it, don't spend it. That's not too hard to figure out, is it?

Bettman says a cap "will act as a magnet," but unless physics has changed lately a magnetic force is not irresistible.

The players say they would have been facing a revolt had they accepted a figure that low. That's fine, but what's the reaction today now that there is no season?

The point is not whether the two sides could have agreed to $45 million. The point is that they didn't even try.

Look at other negotiations that have gone to the brink. After they're settled, someone says something like, "We seemed to have no common ground but I told them the phone lines are always open. We're always available."

Ask the most successful dealmakers and they'll say that the key is to stay in touch. Even if there appears to be no mutually acceptable formula, keep calling. Keep talking. That's the way deals get done.

Both sides are to blame in this, but the league deserves a greater share of the blame. The union had made the most recent proposal and the league didn't bother to respond.

Don't think there were secret talks. Both Bettman and his sidekick, Bill Daly, confirmed that after the PA's offer was received there was no further communication.

"After we got Bob's last fax (Tuesday) night that we would not hear from them, he was true to his word," Bettman said yesterday.

LAST-DITCH ATTEMPT

When asked why he didn't make a last-ditch attempt to seek a common ground, Bettman said, "We made the final offer (Tuesday night) after not hearing from the players all day. There are only so many times you can beat your head against the wall.

"If they wanted $45 million, and I'm not saying we would have gone there, but they sure should have told us. It would have been incumbent upon them to tell us if that's where they would have made a deal."

But it wasn't incumbent upon Bettman to ask? He's the one who locked the players out, after all.

Now they've had their screw-you contest and neither side backed down. Aren't we all proud of them?


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