- The Washington Times - Friday, December 10, 2004

TORONTO — In an effort to salvage what remains of the 2004-05 season, the NHL Players’ Association yesterday proposed rollbacks and benefits it claimed might save teams as much as $1billion over a six-year period.

In essence, the league responded by noting it was nice the union finally acknowledged that the NHL faced some tough financial sledding, but that gesture might not be enough.

During a meeting that lasted nearly four hours, the union presented what has been described as a “substantial” offer — a 236-page plan — in an attempt to end the lockout imposed by the league Sept.15.

NHL commissioner Gary Bettman acknowledged the proposal was massive and said he could not comment on its contents because he hadn’t had time to study it.

But it was clear from Bettman’s remarks that the plan, which union executive director Bob Goodenow termed “powerful” and “significant” in a conference call with players, might not contain the necessary ingredients to satisfy owners’ demands — that the proposal was simply a short-term fix.

“This is about making the right deal for the long-term health of this league,” Bettman said. “When we have a deal, then we’ll see what we can do about some semblance of the season and if we can’t have a season because the deal came too late, then we’ll get ready for a new era when the next season starts.”

Nonetheless, the union proposal was impressive enough to the NHL for the two sides to schedule another meeting for Tuesday. Bettman said a counter-proposal would be presented at that time.

Goodenow said last night the main ingredient of the union plan was an immediate salary rollback of 24 percent that he said would save owners $528million over a three-year period. What the rollback would mean to an individual player, such as a Jaromir Jagr, would be a hit of $2.64million on his $11million yearly salary. In its last proposal, the union said it was willing to cut salaries by 5 percent.

Goodenow said other concessions included savings of nearly $350million over a six-year period on a lowered rookie salary cap that included limits on runaway performance bonuses, revenue sharing and a luxury tax that would start at $45million, taxing teams 20 percent for every dollar over that figure up to $50million and escalating again.

The key item missing from the proposal would be what the league has been terming “cost certainty,” a hard salary cap that would fix salaries at a certain level depending on revenue. If the league comes back Tuesday and makes a salary cap the centerpiece of its new proposal — and its last proposal included six versions of a cap — that could force the union to walk away from the table.

“We’re not ready to negotiate a salary cap,” said center Jeff Halpern, the Washington Capitals acting player representative, after taking part in a conference call among players after the meeting. “This pretty much is the players’ last proposal. The players believe this is the basis for a deal. Now it’s up to the owners to get [the season] started.”

There were unconfirmed reports that some players taking part in the conference call were upset that the union was giving away too much. Goodenow reportedly told the players it was necessary if they wanted to resume playing.

Bettman, who said he had updated about half the league’s 30 owners yesterday afternoon, clearly indicated he didn’t think a luxury tax was the best way to go for the NHL, which claims it lost nearly $500million during the past two seasons — a figure Forbes magazine claimed was about 50 percent high.

“I don’t believe in a luxury tax; it is predictable, I don’t think it works in terms of getting rid of disparities or letting teams retain their playing talent,” the commissioner said. “Yes, we still believe the right way to go systemically is a partnership between the league and the players where there’s a relationship between revenues and expenses, and that’s something we’re going to have to look at and how it might apply in the context of what has been proposed.”

Was the union proposal enough to save the season? Bettman was asked.

“We’ve said all along that the process we’re engaged in unfortunately isn’t about saving the season,” Bettman said. “It’s about saving this league and its 30 franchises long-term and we have to make the right deal, have the right system [so] that we can have a healthy, competitive game going forward. The fact of the matter is, the essential element is getting the right deal.”

And last night he was not ready to say he had gotten that.

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