Future shock?

BRUCE GARRIOCH -- Ottawa Sun

, Last Updated: 8:03 AM ET

In the eyes of one legal expert, it would appear the NHL and NHLPA are on a suicide mission.

So while NHL commissioner Gary Bettman and union executive director Bob Goodenow will meet tomorrow at an undisclosed location, it's doubtful talks to get a CBA in place will go anywhere.

And, with the prospect of a labour impasse, replacement players and an attempt to break the union on the horizon, at least one legal expert believes the NHL and the union are on the path to destruction.

"I was speaking to a law professor who said to me, 'I don't know much about the situation, but it would appear to me these two sides are involved in a mutual suicide pact,' " lawyer Rob Becker, a legal analyst for Rogers Sportsnet and Fox Sports Net, said from New York.

"We're not talking about a sport here that is on the rise in the United States. People in the U.S. have to be corrected when they talk about the major sports (leagues) because they believe there are only three with the (NFL, NBA and Major League Baseball). Many people don't think of hockey as the fourth major sport."

LEGAL REASONS

Bettman, who made history by cancelling an entire pro season last month, has promised the NHL will resume play in the fall. In what form, nobody knows.

Legal considerations are probably one reason Bettman invited the NHLPA back to the bargaining table tomorrow, because if he wants the National Labour Relations Board in the United States to uphold an NHL declaration of impasse, the league must bargain in good faith.

Becker said that might be the reason the league went back to the table with representatives of the union on Feb. 19 -- three days after the season was cancelled -- in New York.

"Just before the season was cancelled, the two sides had a major breakthrough in negotiations with the owners' offer of a cap without linkage and the players offering to take a cap without linkage at the 11th hour. They were essentially $6.5 million (US) apart," said Becker.

"There was no way, based on that negotiation, the owners were going to be able to convince the NLRB to uphold an impasse. The NLRB would have said the two sides weren't far apart and there was no impasse. That's why when the meeting in New York fell apart, I thought it was very significant that (NHLPA executive committee VP) Vincent Damphousse said the union realized on Feb. 19 the league's offer was much worse than they thought it was."

If the league declares an impasse, the union will almost certainly file an unfair labour charge against the NHL and go on strike while the two sides battle it out. An NLRB decision could take months.

NOT CERTIFIED

If the NHL opens training camp in September with replacement players, Becker doesn't anticipate there will be any problems in Vancouver or Montreal -- where provincial laws don't allow replacement workers.

"The NHLPA is not a certified union in either of those provinces. They've never tried to be," said Becker.

But if the NHL hires replacement players, there's a risk, says Becker, that the NLRB could later rule that the league used unfair labour practices.

Becker thinks using replacement players could be a disaster economically.

"Sure, the hard-core fans in what they call the blue seats at the top in Madison Square Garden might go to see replacements because they need a hockey fix," said Becker.

"I'm sure if some people said they were going to watch replacements, they'd be laughed at. The reaction would be something like, 'Are you kidding me?' I just don't think the idea would be viable. Nobody would care in the United States. It might be viable in Canada because they love hockey, but that's only six teams out of 30."


Videos

Photos