NHLPA ready to do battle

AL STRACHAN -- Toronto Sun

, Last Updated: 8:46 AM ET

As the National Hockey League's lockout continues, both sides continue to wrestle with the over-riding question: What next? The NHL governors have narrowed it down to three possibilities. The first option is that they stage a celebration -- giving each other high fives, thanking the players for throwing up the white flag of surrender, and bragging about the huge profit they'll make when they sell their teams.

Since that's not going to happen, they'll look at their second option -- to continue working toward playing next season with replacement players.

The third option? We'll deal with that later.

The counter-strategies of the NHL Players Association are not so clear-cut. There are a number of possibilities and the organization's executive committee discussed them at length this week.

No one who was inside those meetings is revealing their precise content, but there are some people close to the situation who think they have an idea.

It is their belief that NHLPA executive director Bob Goodenow has to make one more last-ditch attempt to negotiate a settlement -- still based on a 24% salary rollback.

On that front, one point must be made forcefully, even though you may have heard it before. The NHL's general managers are convinced that they can prosper under the PA's Dec. 9 proposal, or something close to it.

As a result, they are gradually winning more and more owners to their side and the NHL's hard-liners are becoming an increasingly isolated group.

This is where the league's third option comes into play. It could hammer out a new collective bargaining agreement based on those rollbacks -- and still claim a clear victory.

But let's assume Bettman continues to press for a hard salary cap. Now, the two sides will move on to the next phase.

Many people of influence feel that Goodenow should then tell Bettman to get on with his replacement scenario as quickly as possible -- to announce his decision publicly and clearly, instead of merely issuing threats and innuendos.

It's no secret to either side that the NHLPA will fight that decision, so the sooner it is made, the sooner the real battle -- the one that Bettman planned all along -- can begin.

The PA believes, based on considerable evidence, that Bettman never planned to hold a 2004-05 season and that he was always working towards this type of impasse. Therefore, if it has to happen, why wait?

The principles that Bettman has enunciated during his recent press conferences -- that the sooner the league gets a deal the better -- are still in place, whether that agreement is reached amicably or by some alternative method.

The first phase of the battle was fought before the public. The next phase will be fought before the judicial bodies, up to and including the courts.

UNCHARTED WATERS

Both sides will be dipping their toes in uncharted waters. Baseball briefly used replacement players, but the National Labor Relations Board in the United States ruled against the owners and within a week, the players had a highly favourable deal. And baseball has an antitrust exemption.

The National Football League used replacement players, but it continued to get its television revenues -- which will not be the case with hockey. Also, a number of high-profile NFL players broke ranks.

That's not likely to happen in the NHL. There could conceivably be defections, but the better players -- the wealthier ones -- are almost certain to stay out. Since they're the ones the fans want to see, the replacement scenario could end up costing the owners even more money than the lockout.

One thing is certain. If the league tries to use replacement players, it will not be a smooth path. The PA may or may not win, but after this week's meeting, it is fully prepared for any type of battle in which the NHL might want to engage.


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