SUN Hockey Pool

Hockey in '05, claims Bettman

AL STRACHAN -- Toronto Sun

, Last Updated: 9:01 AM ET

It was American President Franklin D. Roosevelt who said, "Speak softly, and carry a big stick."

It was National Hockey League commissioner Gary Bettman who said, "Speak of negotiation, and threaten replacement players."

Actually, Bettman didn't use those precise words. But he could have.

After yesterday's board of governors meeting in New York, he repeatedly made the point that he wanted to get back to the negotiating table as soon as possible. And he was very careful not to specifically threaten the use of replacement players as a part of the league's strategy.

But he also made it equally clear that there will be a 2005-06 season one way or another and, if if doesn't take place using members of the NHLPlayers' Association, then it will take place using players from another source -- any source.

The Edmonton Oilers' chairman of the board, Cal Nicholls, left little doubt about the strategy.

"I think we can plan to move forward," he said. "And play a season, no matter however it happens, this coming year."

At the moment, the pressure to negotiate is more on the owners than the players. The owners need a settlement in a hurry to get the league's cumbersome machinery rolling.

The players, however, won't be back in action before next season whether the settlement comes tomorrow or next September.

As a result, the players have some added leverage, but Bettman said that's irrelevant.

"I believe that it's in everybody's interest to make a deal as soon as possible," Bettman said. "This isn't about leverage or not.

"We're all trying to do the right thing as partners. We're going to invite the union back to the table soon, and I assume that they'll discharge their legal obligations to bargain in good faith. I'm hoping that choosing not to come back to the table for some reason won't be an issue."

Although Bettman left open the possibility of using replacement players, a strategy that is a legal minefield, he also made it plain that he would prefer to get a negotiated settlement with the NHLPA.

When asked specifically about the use of replacement players, he said: "Hopefully, it's an alternative proposition that we'll never have to focus on because our commitment remains making a fair deal with our players."

But the league's chief legal officer, Bill Daly, admitted that the governors spent more than an hour discussing legal issues as part of yesterday's meeting.

You don't need to discuss legalities to effect a negotiated settlement. The legalities involve the possibility of antitrust actions that could arise in the use of replacement players.

GET ROLLING

Like Bettman, Daly insisted that he would prefer to get the talks rolling.

"We would hope that if we invite them back to the table, they share the same interest we do in having a deal done on as soon a date as possible," he said.

"We're in the short term committed to trying to move this process along quickly. My guess is we'll get a good sense almost immediately from the Players Association of whether they're interested in negotiating a deal or whether they're interested in stalling. We'll make assessments at that time.

Both Daly and Bettman said the league had options beyond a negotiated deal or the use of replacement players, but neither would elaborate.

"There are lots of options but I'm not interested in going into them right now," Bettman said.

Bettman also said he had no new offers to make to the PA, and was asked why there would be any hope of these two sides, which have been arguing these issues for years, reaching a settlement.

"Sometimes, work stoppages change perceptions," he said.


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