- The Washington Times - Friday, August 27, 2004

Another round of NHL labor talks produced yet another bitter division over the economic future of hockey, leaving prospects for a full 2004-05 season as hopeless as ever.

NHL management and the players’ association yesterday finished a two-day negotiation in Ottawa that merely represented a “sidestep” in the overall process, said Ted Saskin, union senior director of business affairs. The two sides discussed several team-related and league-wide economic issues, but the talks generated no new proposals and succeeded only in raising the ire of everyone involved.

“What they’re doing is a classic filibuster,” said Bill Daly, NHL executive vice president. “They’re talking about issues just to talk, issues we’ve discussed ad nauseum for 51/2 years and are irrelevant to the current bargaining process. It’s clear the union doesn’t want to negotiate, and that’s very, very frustrating.”

Daly, who also has been posting regular updates on the NHL’s labor-specific Web site, nhlcbanews.com, blasted the union further, writing his longest message to date and one utterly drenched with anger.

“We hear in the media — not from the union — that union leadership’s current meandering exercise of reviewing club situations is intended for the purpose of helping it to better understand our problems and to help it formulate a new proposal,” Daly wrote. “What are they waiting for?”

The current labor deal expires Sept.15, just 19 days from now, and a lengthy lockout by the owners is all but certain.

The union, predictably, considers the league the intransigent party and to blame for the lack of progress.

“To suggest the players are trying to get locked out is absolutely ludicrous,” Saskin said. “It is absolutely the approach [of commissioner Gary Bettman] to try to use his lockout to put economic pressure on the players to force them to agree to a system they would never negotiate across the table. They seem to say that any time we’re not talking about a salary cap, the talks are not productive. That approach is not going to get us very far.”

The union is stridently opposed to a salary cap.

The Ottawa talks marked the fifth set of formal labor sessions since late May. But each side still holds a fundamentally different vision of the future course of the NHL. Owners are desperate for a radical change to the current system, one in which they claim nearly $2billion in fiscal losses in the last decade. Players want a continuation of the current free-marked based system that has created a tripling of average salaries over the same time frame.

Last month management proposed six different concepts for a new economic framework, any of which NHL executives said they would accept. The concepts varied widely, ranging from a funneling of player compensation to the NHL central office to a system in which pay would be based on objective statistical criteria.

Union leaders quickly dismissed the option, viewing each as a de facto salary cap. The union’s last formal proposal, one centered on a 5percent rollback of salaries and the creation of a luxury tax for hockey, arrived last fall. Bettman quickly rejected any notion of a luxury tax, saying it could not guarantee a significant reduction in fiscal losses.

The next set of negotiations is scheduled for Tuesday and Wednesday in Montreal. Union leaders, meanwhile, have told players participating in the upcoming World Cup of Hockey to prepare for an extended shutdown to the NHL, continuing a message that has been sent out privately by the union for months.

“We’re obviously hoping for the best, but it is only prudent for players to prepare for the worst,” Saskin said.

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