Hope floats in NLL

MIKE ULMER -- Toronto Sun

, Last Updated: 6:18 AM ET

Negotiators worked late into the evening last night to hammer out a deal that would see the 2003-2004 National Lacrosse League season salvaged. "There has been no word yet, but we're still expecting to hear from the players," said Toronto Rock owner Brad Watters.

"From the feedback I'm getting, I'm pretty sure the deal will get done."

League officials had given the Professional Lacrosse Players' Association a deadline of today to accept a one-year extension to the expired collective bargaining agreement.

The move would bring both owners and players back from the brink and keep the players' association in the mix.

Had the owners stuck by a plan announced Monday and tendered contracts to individual players, the league could have been beset by morale problems between players who crossed and those who didn't. The union would have been devastated had a significant number of players chosen to return to work.

Management has long complained there wasn't sufficient time to iron out a new deal, and pointed fingers at union negotiators for failing to make themselves available in the later stages of the negotiations.

If the players refused, the owners said they would cancel the season. Despite regional and national broadcast sales, the league has been pared down to 10 teams and the cancellation of the season would likely have spelled the end of professional lacrosse in the U.S. and Canada.

The NLL season is slated to begin play Dec. 26.

"You have teams that are starting play in the United States in eight days," Watters said.

"We just couldn't let this go on any longer."

The players have been on strike for 11 days. The major stumbling blocks are the term of the deal and the salary cap on each team.

League officials say they offered to up the cap from $290,000 to $600,000 US and claim only the Rock and Philadelphia Wings made money last season.

Rock players had decided they would vote as a block. They could stay out or they could return to play but, either way, the players would act as a unit.

"That didn't surprise me,"Watters said.

"That is the character of our team."

With a salary that rarely climbs above $20,000, NLL players invariably hold full-time jobs in other fields.

An extension of the expired CBA would contain a provision that would keep the players from striking and the owners from locking the players out.

And if a deal still isn't worked out 12 months from now?

"Then we're right back to where we were," Watters said. "And asking ourselves how we couldn't get a deal done."


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