SUN Hockey Pool

NHLPA has lost its way

MIKE ULMER -- Toronto Sun

, Last Updated: 10:58 AM ET

The NHLPA stands as one of the great defenders of unfettered supply and demand.

That should be of great comfort to them in a week or so when we'll all be able to pick up one of those nice PA fleece pullovers for $1.99.

Right now, every player in the NHL must be asking how things went so bad, so fast.

Their union is in schism with Bob Goodenow and Ted Saskin in conflict over how and when to settle.

The resolve of the membership has evaporated. The public relations war has long since been lost.

They have sacrificed $1 million US in wages. The contract the players will eventually sign will be the biggest backtrack in the sport's history.

With the game's standing rivaling buffalo chip throwing in many American markets, the players have managed to bargain themselves a radically smaller portion of a dramatically tinier pie.

So how did they do it? How did the NHLPA, once a rival to baseball's union as the most militant and hard core among the big four sports, blow all this so badly.

Well, it made three mistakes.

First, the NHLPA tied itself into a suicidal tactical position: no cap. The union's insistence on a non-regulated, free market economy was staggeringly stupid. No hockey player has ever been able to explain to anyone's satisfaction why Michael Jordan would play in a league with a salary cap but Matt Stajan wouldn't.

The players informed the owners that the reason they were going broke was that they handed out stupid contracts, never admitting to the collusionary nature of the relationship in which each of the NHL's 30 teams was fighting not one agent or player, but all of them.

Worse yet, when the players finally accepted the inevitable cap, they lost what little credibility they had.

Mistake number two was the players' distrust of the owners' numbers.

As a business, the NHL is closer to the National Lacrosse League than the National Football League, and yet it was working with a higher average salary for NHL players than their NFL brethren.

Yet the players rolled their eyes at the Levitt Report.

There were, the players said, holes you could sail Bill Wirtz's yacht through.

Say Levitt missed the boat. Say he was off by 50%. You were still talking about an industry with losses of $135 million.

Honestly, who cares if Wirtz didn't declare his luxury boxes? They're friggin' empty anyway.

Third, the players underestimated their opponent.

You can't blame them, really. All that Gary Bettman has managed in more than a decade in power was a CBA with more holes than a bathtub mat and some lame rule changes.

But in retrospect, the small-market composition of Bettman's inner cabinet, the scarce number of votes needed to get a deal, the new wealth of the current ownership (Tom Golisano in Buffalo, Eugene Melnyk in Ottawa for example), all these things should have told the players this was a fight they could not win.

The players were so sure Bettman and the owners would cave that they missed any genuine opportunity to advance talks.

Initially the union offered to keep playing under the current system. That's like telling ownership, 'keep playing Russian roulette. I won't stop you but I won't put any more shells in your six-shooter either.'

The players' much-vaunted offer of a 24% rollback was just a gambit that would have pushed back the clock a few years but would have done nothing to avoid the drubbing players and their agents were handing the clubs at the bargaining table.

Finally, in February, the players turned down a salary cap of $42.5 million, perhaps $10 million more than they will soon accept.

All the while,Bettman told them there would be less and less on the table.

It's a shame. Hockey players are as good and honest a group as you will find in any business. They just lost their way.


Photos