Lawyers didn't help the cause

AL STRACHAN -- Toronto Sun

, Last Updated: 8:35 AM ET

When you have broken promises, reversals of form and illogical actions, it is a safe bet lawyers are at work. The dispute between the National Hockey League and the NHL Players' Association is a prime example. Each organization is run by lawyers and each spends a lot of money acquiring outside legal opinions.

As a result, all the machinations that have taken place in the past few days were lawyer-directed.

First, some background.

NHL commissioner Gary Bettman has battled for a hard salary cap for one over-riding reason.

He knows that if he can get it, NHL franchise values will rise dramatically.

With the National Football League's union in disarray, a salary cap was imposed and over the subsequent five years, franchise values almost tripled.

Bettman sold a number of investors -- not hockey people in most cases -- on the concept of buying an NHL franchise that would soon experience a similar rise in value. It would do so, he said, because he would get a salary cap.

The NHLPA, however, said it was strongly opposed to a salary cap and would never accede on that point.

Therefore, there was only one way Bettman could attain his ideal. He had to get the National Labor Relations Board in the United States to get a bargaining impasse declared and thereby earn the right to impose the cap.

Never mind that he had little chance of success. Never mind that the NLRB has avoided dealing with sports leagues. Never mind that when baseball tried it, the move backfired and the owners had to capitulate to the players within days.

With the NHLPA being so recalcitrant, it was Bettman's only hope.

So when the union came forth with a shocking and highly workable proposal on Dec. 9, Bettman had little recourse. All the impartial observers and hockey lovers saw the PA's move as a godsend. It was a framework for negotiation and it created a deal that would work for any rational owner.

But a workable deal is not a salary cap. A workable deal would not double or triple franchise values.

So Bettman had to pirouette for a while, come back with the same offer he had made before, then lie low for a few weeks.

After all, if you make a settlement, you can hardly run to the NLRB after the season and claim an impasse exists.

But by February, it was becoming increasingly apparent that the NHL had done virtually no negotiating. It had offered a hard cap, then restated the same offer yet again.

If there was to be any hope of an impasse being declared, the league had to show that it had negotiated in good faith. How could it do that?

It hadn't negotiated at all.

So when it appeared to be too late to do anything about it, the league dropped the requirement of a linkage between revenues and salaries.

Voila! It had negotiated.

But the PA had a stunning move of its own. The PA's lawyers realized that now, the players themselves must be seen to be negotiating to counter the league's case.

So the sworn opposition to the salary cap evaporated.

Now the league couldn't claim philosophical differences. It was simply a matter of money -- an amount the PA was negotiating until it was prevented from doing so any further by the league-imposed deadline.

Furthermore, the NLRB's own mediators had met both sides last Sunday and suggested the league remove linkage.

As professional negotiators, they knew that a salary cap of $45 million US or so was there to be negotiated.

Therefore, now that there appears to have been a willingness on the part of the union to approach a $45-million cap, Bettman has to go back to the bargaining table.

Perhaps there are enough owners who feel that a soft cap now is far more valuable than a hard cap down the road.

But to maintain any hope of an impasse, Bettman could not let the union's willingness to resume negotiations go unmatched. 


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