- The Washington Times - Thursday, December 9, 2004

TORONTO — The most important meetings in the history of the NHL are scheduled to begin shortly before noon today, with the fate of the league as it is currently known hanging in the balance.

Management has accepted an invitation from the locked-out NHL Players Association to talk, the first time the sides have met formally in more than three months.

The meetings are scheduled for today and tomorrow at the NHL offices in downtown Toronto, a short distance from the Hockey Hall of Fame. But it is uncertain whether there will be actual negotiations.

The union, which was locked out by the owners Sept.15, is scheduled to make another proposal to settle the dispute and salvage the season. Yesterday would have been the 57th day of the season; through last night, 372 games had been wiped off the books.

Four key words separate the two sides. The owners are insisting on “cost certainty,” another way to describe a salary cap tying payroll to revenue; the union refuses even to discuss a cap. The union is offering a “luxury tax” that would penalize teams for spending above a certain figure; the NHL maintains it won’t solve the problem.

The critical problem is that the time for talking has all but passed if the season is to be salvaged in some form. It is generally agreed it would take about six weeks of hard negotiations to come up with a new collective bargaining agreement. That takes the NHL and the union to Jan.23 if they are successful in their talks and leaves them with 78 days to push through some sort of makeshift season if they hope to finish the campaign as scheduled April10.

The alternatives are dismal. If the talks today and tomorrow don’t lead to a continuation of negotiations, the season in all likelihood officially will be canceled within a week with no guarantee there will be a 2005-06 season. The league undoubtedly will seek a court-ordered impasse ruling in which it can impose its own “last best offer,” a salary cap, and bring in replacement players; the union will go to court maintaining the NHL hasn’t bargained in good faith.

And if the work stoppage goes on for two seasons, there is a possibility the 30-team NHL will reappear as a 24- or 26-team league.

“It’s a waste of time,” said one Washington Capitals player who asked not to be identified. “This is just window dressing on both sides. The PA is putting a new proposal out there to be able to say it’s done something. The league is showing up so it can say it did everything possible to get a deal done. If the league wanted to bargain in good faith, it would have come up with something on its own instead of doing nothing all this time.”

What the players are against, they maintain, is a Band-Aid solution in which problems are temporarily resolved just to save a season and then reappear in a worse form in a year or so.

“The owners are demanding we agree to a salary cap before they even sit down to talk,” the veteran player said. “If we do that, what’s left to talk about? We’re only a small part of this salary cap business anyway — they want the cap to protect themselves from going overboard again.”

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