At last ... a hockey man

AL STRACHAN -- Toronto Sun

, Last Updated: 7:18 AM ET

Where there is smoke, there is fire.

Or, in the National Hockey League version, where there is talk, there is hope.

That doesn't mean that there is a lot of hope, and they certainly are nowhere close to reaching a settlement, despite the occasional assertion to that effect in some circles.

But since both sides agree that the talks should continue, there has to be a feeling that they can do some good.

It was the usual list of suspects who gathered yesterday with one interesting addition -- Lou Lamoriello. His involvement is yet another good sign.

For the first time since Trevor Linden initiated these mid-level meetings, the owners have brought in someone who knows more about hockey than about torts and codicils.

Lamoriello, the general manager and president of the New Jersey Devils, rubs a lot of people in hockey the wrong way. He runs the organization as if it were some sort of eastern seaboard prep school and forces his players to conform to rules that could come only from a mind that is astonishingly archaic or terminally condescending.

But he is at least a hockey man. He is not a lawyer. He is not a businessman, although he has become extremely wealthy through his involvement with the Devils.

He knows how the NHL works and he knows what a team needs to do to be successful. He runs a team without a town, a franchise which calls an interchange its home. Yet he won three Stanley Cups under the now-defunct collective bargaining agreement and turned a nifty profit in the process.

Now, there is finally someone on the owners' side who is capable of listening to the players' voices and making some sense out of what he hears.

More importantly, the league has finally brought in someone who has been successful with his franchise, rather than taking counsel only from the league's losers.

Commissioner Gary Bettman has put himself in the position of being dictated to by hawks who either can't (Carolina, Nashville) or won't (Boston, Chicago) make a decent profit off this game.

Now is the time to start to involve the Lamoriellos of the hockey world, the people who say: "If I pay close attention to my team and impose some rules that may not be universally popular, I can be successful, both on an off the ice."

If the Edmonton Oilers, wonderful as that franchise may have been over the years, want to insist that the NHL be reconfigured for their well-being to the detriment of major markets, then they should be told to stuff it where the sun doesn't shine.

Never mind putting the franchise in mothballs; put it out of its misery.

At some point, the two sides in this owners lockout are going to meet again. They can't take a long time to do it because there isn't much time left.

The time has come to bring in the successful teams, the ones that did well under the old CBA and could have a field day under a new agreement based on a 24% wage rollback. It's time for Bettman to start listening to them.

Yes, he has indeed painted himself into a corner by promising the owners not a fair deal but a hard salary cap. And yes, the players' deal is fair, but not a hard cap.

But the players are not going to accept a hard cap and even though they may eventually capitulate in a couple of years, what will the league have won by forcing the battle to that conclusion? There will be no interest left, just a vast wasteland.

Bettman should tell the owners he has wrested a series of excellent concessions from the players -- which is the case -- and that it makes more sense to take a variation of that deal than to force a hard cap.

He may have to concede to some owners that he lied. But he is, after all, a lawyer. It would hardly be a first.


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