SUN Hockey Pool

More hot air can't fight off constant chill

AL STRACHAN, TORONTO SUN

, Last Updated: 9:13 AM ET

Out west, before provincial lotteries became a reality, small communities often had their own annual fund-raiser. As soon as solid ice formed on the lake, someone would drive an old car out to the middle and leave it there. Then tickets were sold and people would predict the date the following spring the car would sink to the bottom.

The concept is a suitable analogy for what is happening with the National Hockey League's labour talks at the moment.

The thaw is under way and the ice is not as thick as it once was. In some places, it's downright soft. But that car is still out there, and in that part of the lake, the ice is still pretty thick.

The thaw really began at last week's general managers' meeting at Detroit Airport. NHL people met face to face with NHL Players' Association people, at levels that had not had any interaction for months. Players and GMs were involved, and the infectious optimism spread to the other levels.

Now that more talks are scheduled for next week, followed by a board of governors meeting, there is a sense the lockout is in its last days.

It is and it isn't.

Both sides realize a deal has to get done before too long, and they're working within a specific range. But they are still a good distance apart.

On the owners' side, there is a realization that the original strategy has been flawed to the point that it is irretrievable.

The initial plan of a one-year shutdown was implemented but it did not break the resolve of the players, as had been hoped. And the fallback position of replacement players isn't going to work either.

For one thing, the vast majority of the general managers are against it and they are able to convince the owners of the error of their ways.

For another, the legal strategy of the NHLPA -- which countered the NHL's move away from linkage by the acceptance of a salary cap -- left the NHL without a solid position to use in an attempt to get an impasse declared.

That whole scenario depends upon the NHL being able to say it has bargained in good faith and that the differences between the two sides are irreconcilable.

But the NHL hasn't really bargained at all. It started with a demand for the imposition of a salary cap, and that's still the basic premise of its offers. As for the other point, where is there any proof that the differences are irreconcilable?

The two sides are arguing primarily over the numbers that should be in place at the top and bottom of the salary-cap range.

That's negotiation, not impasse.

On the other side, the players don't want this lockout to drag into a second year. The damage to the sport has already been considerable, and if a deal can be reached that allows them to be well rewarded for their talent, they'll take it.

But at the same time, they are aware they are in the entertainment business, which is a highly lucrative field. They feel that those of their number who have exceptional talent should be paid accordingly, and if the cap is too hard or if the upper limit is too low, then that cannot happen.

If there is a player, for instance, who fills rinks wherever he goes, then he should be allowed to make a salary that is commensurate with his drawing power. Similarly, if a large-market team needs stars to compete with other major-league sports in its area for the fans' interest, then it should not be prevented from doing so by a hard cap. The NHLPA feels it is better to have those teams pay a surcharge that would be distributed to the smaller-market teams.

At the moment, there is agreement between the two sides on a number of issues, the primary one being that this mess should get cleared up before next season.

But there certainly is no breakthrough in sight.

That car is going to be on that ice for some time yet.


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