SUN Hockey Pool

Players need to speak up

STEVE SIMMONS -- Toronto Sun

, Last Updated: 8:44 AM ET

When last we saw Robert Esche, wandering through the lobby of an airport hotel, he was spewing some kind of National Hockey League Players' Association mantra about never, ever, ever, accepting a salary cap in his life.

That was before he changed his mind.

In February, Esche and a few choice friends attempted to do an end-run on their fellow brothers of the NHLPA.

They wanted a deal and they wanted it now.

And somewhere in between, the executive council and executive director of the players' association clashed on what they would and wouldn't accept in negotiations with the NHL.

Robert Esche stands now as a living, breathing symbol of the confused and confounding state of the NHL Players' Association. He spoke one way, acted another. First he bought the NHLPA rhetoric then he fought against it.

Today, a fractured, unemployed, philosophically divided membership will meet with its leaders and almost certainly determine that all is seemingly well.

You will hear that with conviction because these are hockey players and getting in line is just about what they do best.

They will wear their NHLPA ball caps, the only cap they seem to believe in. They will repeat -- as Esche has -- whatever they are told to repeat. They will speak with conviction and passion about subjects most of them can't begin to comprehend.

And they will be no further ahead -- already significantly behind -- where they were when this process began officially on Sept. 15.

What will happen today and what should happen today are two completely different matters.

What will happen is that players who worked outside the system, like Esche, will be ostracized and shouted down. They will be informed how important it is they stick together. They will, in no small way, be threatened in the kind of way hockey players tend not to respond.

They will not, as with past meetings, be informed in any meaningful way about where the Players' Association will go from here.

Just as they weren't informed when their elected officials offered a 24% rollback on their salaries.

Just as they weren't informed when the holy trinity issue of salary cap was sold out before their very eyes.

Just as they weren't informed about the confusion of last Saturday in New York when the NHL believed there was a deal to be made and two of the most prominent players in history, Wayne Gretzky and Mario Lemieux, were set up to come in as closers.

Only the PA was so fractured at the top it couldn't decide which way to proceed.

One thing is certain: The mood of the players has altered drastically since the lockout begin.

At first, there was a certain militance about the players' position. It grew to almost anger after the 24% rollback was offered by the PA and rejected by the league.

But when a deal grew close, and there was all kinds of player pressure, especially among veterans, to get it done, pragmatism seemed to the relevant emotion.

Whether players are brave enough, confident enough or individual enough to stand up today and confront their leadership with challenging questions is open to conjecture.

But that's precisely how they should proceed.

Already, 432 players have watched as their contracts have basically expired.

Another 130 -- all signed for less than $1.5 million -- have to wonder when they will paid again, and how many cents on each dollar will they relinquish?

As players gather for their meeting today, they would be advised to take stock of the fact that one out of every seven PA members -- minimum -- won't be back to play in a restructured NHL.

OVER THE CLIFF

Simple math tells you that.

Or as one NHL owner told me recently: "Bob Goodenow is driving the bus over the cliff and he's taking the players all with him ... What they don't seem to understand is that there's a difference between millionaire and billionaire."

It's among the many things misunderstood in a fight in which they have no chance of prevailing in.


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