Here we go again

The question the NHL faces is one of priorities in its upcoming meeting with the players...

The question the NHL faces is one of priorities in its upcoming meeting with the players association this week. How does it get the game back on the ice with the minimum amount of long-range damage? (Photo illustration)

AL STRACHAN -- Toronto Sun

, Last Updated: 8:33 AM ET

In the National Hockey League's darkest hour, any ray of light, no matter how faint it may be, is a welcome sight.

On Monday, when the NHL asked for a re-opening of negotiations, it came as no shock to anyone. Commissioner Gary Bettman had said after last week's board of governors meeting in New York that the league wanted to get back to the table as soon as possible.

The quick, positive response of the NHL Players' Association, however, may have surprised some people. There had been suggestions the PA might take a more confrontational approach and say, "You made life difficult for us. Now we're going to do it to you."

Fortunately, the PA isn't that petty. If a new agreement is to be reached, the sooner the better for both sides.

The league needs time to establish TV deals, entice season-ticket holders, market the game and woo advertisers. The more time it has, the more successful it will be.

In turn, that means a better league and a better chance for the players to earn higher salaries. So it's back to the table.

But what do they discuss? Is there to be some movement away from the well-entrenched positions on both sides?

It would appear there is. Even though Bettman has reinstated the gag order he so benevolently eased for a few weeks, his owners were allowed to express themselves long enough to let it be known there are chinks in the armour.

The wall isn't crumbling yet by any means, but a number of owners at all economic levels -- top of the heap, mid-range and bottom-feeders -- have made it clear they could make money under a new CBA based on the players' Dec. 9 proposal. It offered significant rollbacks but no salary cap.

All the evidence indicates the NHL never intended to play a 2004-05 season. More than one owner has said so off the record. Some teams had so few players under contract that they couldn't have iced a team had a deal been done.

It was the NHL's strategy to put aside $300 million US, shut down for a year, use the $300 million to stay afloat, and see what kind of deal it could then wring out of the players.

The first three steps are a fait accompli. Step 4 starts with this week's negotiations.

For the first time, the talks now deal with a longer-range view. The NHL now knows that by shutting down, it has done serious damage to its fan base, not only in the United States, but even in the Canadian heartland.

No longer is the concept of starting the 2004-05 season a matter for discussion. Now the idea is to get a deal that will save the league from itself.

These talks will allow each side to re-evaluate its position, and that's especially important to the league because it is the one driving the bus.

There is no way the NHL wants to bring in replacement players. To do so would be to tiptoe through a legal minefield that flirts with the onerous triple-damages provision of the Sherman Antitrust Act.

Some teams want to get back on the ice in a hurry. As Montreal Canadiens owner George Gillet said on Monday, "Because of fixed costs, such as the property taxes, the land lease for our building and the cost of servicing the debt on our building, we'd rather be playing."

He's not alone. Most of the higher-income teams feel that way. And so do many of others, assuming they could be given a fair deal -- a variation of the Dec. 9 proposal -- and not necessarily a salary cap.

So the question the NHL faces is one of priorities. How does it get the game back on the ice with the minimum amount of long-range damage?

To make that decision, it has to explore how far apart the two sides are, now that they're swimming in unknown waters, and what concessions would be needed for a deal.

That's a ray of light. It's faint but it's tangible.


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