SUN Hockey Pool

Stumbling blocks still exist

AL STRACHAN -- Toronto Sun

, Last Updated: 8:44 AM ET

Although the two sides in the National Hockey League lockout never have been so fragmented, the chances of getting a deal are better than ever.

But not right away.

On the players' side, there is a faction that would like to get a deal done, even if it means taking a heavy hit. These are the guys who have the game in their blood and are lost without it.

But there also are players who have enough foresight to realize that as long as Gary Bettman is at the helm of the NHL, the players never will be paid what they are worth. They feel their only chance is to stick to their stance long enough to force the owners to dump Bettman, who is determined to establish a system that caters to the whims of the underfunded teams. If Bettman gets his way, minimum payrolls will be institutionalized.

On the owners' side, there is a similar split. Some teams have seen a fortune in potential revenue drift away and, at the same time, are watching the values of their franchises drop steadily. They want to get their cash registers humming again, the sooner the better.

HARDLINERS STRONG

But the ownership element that has directed the strategy so far, the hardline, make-no-concessions group, remains strong.

The NHL has a curious system which allows eight Bettman allies to get their way against 22 Bettman foes, and that former group continues to carry the day.

So at the moment, the negotiators continue to do their work, fully realizing that no matter what they propose or accept, a significant segment of their membership will be unhappy.

Because the two sides have met so often in recent weeks, it is widely assumed that great progress is being made and that a settlement is imminent. Unfortunately, that's not the case.

Much of the discussion has focused on hypothetical situations, many of which will never see the light of day. In some areas, the two sides have had some serious disagreements, usually in the sessions involving Boston Bruins owner Jeremy Jacobs, who seems incapable of masking his disdain for the players and spends much of his time looking at his watch -- a different one every day.

So in this climate, any suggestion that a deal is imminent and could even happen at today's meeting, is nothing more than wishful thinking.

In fact, some of the owners' proposals are solid steps backward, thinly disguised attempts to impose a hard cap -- which the NHL Players' Association has said it will not accept.

For instance, the league has floated the concept of a dollar-for-dollar tax on any team which exceeds the salary cap. As if that were not onerous enough, a team which exceeds the salary cap in successive years would lose its first-round draft pick. Exceeding the cap for three years would cost two first-round picks.

But despite all these drawbacks, there does seem to be agreement on broader issues. Both sides seem to accept that payrolls will have to fit into a range. But the size of that range still is a major source of contention.

REVENUE SHARING

The players have been pressing hard to get the league to implement a revenue-sharing system, as is the case in other sports. But NHL owners are masters at hiding, diverting or denying revenues, and they have been doing it for years.

The only thing they like less than disclosing revenues is sharing them with someone else.

Still, progress is indeed being made and that's the reason for the widespread optimism. While there still are some stumbling blocks in evidence, there also is willingness on the part of both parties to effect a deal.

But before anybody in Toronto starts to celebrate, there are two major points that should be considered.

First, when this deal does get done, it will be one of the most complex documents ever to plague professional sports. The fans' ability to understand the management aspects of the game will be hindered markedly.

Second, the overriding idea is to keep the small markets happy at the expense of the teams that are perceived to be wealthy. And there is no wealthier team in hockey than the Maple Leafs.


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