SUN Hockey Pool

Deal isn't as bad for players as some think

AL STRACHAN -- Toronto Sun

, Last Updated: 9:13 AM ET

When the members of the National Hockey League Players' Association trooped into their meeting yesterday, they knew they hadn't managed to negotiate the deal they wanted.

But then again, neither had the owners.

Ever since the players lost their resolve early in the calendar year and started backing down from their previous stance, they have been increasingly painted as the losers in this battle.

But how they are painted by the media isn't of any great concern. Most of them know that the facts are somewhat different, and one of the purposes of the meetings that began yesterday and concludes today, was to discuss ways to make the best of it. Placing the blame isn't that important.

Still, it is certainly not a meeting of unbridled harmony. There had been jokes about inviting a few linesmen to the affair because players will respect their authority when fights threaten to break out.

And there was certainly no attempt to portray the new collective bargaining as a victory. But the union's leadership did feel that it was the best deal that could have been made under the circumstances.

Granted, there's a 24% rollback. But it was the players themselves who came up with that figure in their Dec. 9 proposal. They knew they were going to have to climb down from the salary levels the owners had created over the previous decade, so they offered 24% and hoped the reduction would go no further.

It didn't.

Also, the players will be subject to a salary cap, a concept that they said they would never accept.

But in the years leading up to the lockout, every player was asked -- in a questionnaire that was filled out in private and submitted in confidence -- how long he would stay out to enforce the no-salary-cap demand.

Some players felt they could withstand an absence from the game for a year or two. But the vast majority wrote "as long as it takes."

By January, however, it was clear that many players had overstated their resolve. Players everywhere were saying, both privately and publicly, that they just wanted to get back to playing hockey. So it was agreed that a salary cap would be accepted.

But at this time a year ago, NHL commissioner Gary Bettman had given up pretending that he didn't have a specific salary-cap figure in mind. It was $930 million US.

For the league to get a clear victory, salaries will have to be limited to that amount. But if you believe Bettman's speeches, it won't happen. The PA negotiated a maximum cap of $39 million which, over 30 teams, is a total of $1.17 billion.

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While not every team will start at the maximum, Bettman repeatedly insisted that in caponomics, the upper-level figure "acts like a magnet."

On another front, some players said publicly that a $42-million cap could have been negotiated in February. But that's a distortion of the facts.

The likely cap figure was agreed upon weeks ago, but the rest of the time -- all those long hours of negotiating day after day -- was spent hammering out the peripheral issues. Had the PA managed to get a $42-million cap, it would have lost a host of other concessions that will prove to be more valuable.

The free-agency age has been lowered. The compensation grid has been liberalized. The minimum salary has been increased. The lost year counts towards seniority. And so on.

And one more thing. The players are reminding each other that at first, the last CBA looked bad. But before too long, the owners found ways to sabotage the deal and betray their partners.

A salary cap does not preclude stupidity.


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