- The Washington Times - Wednesday, August 4, 2004

Only a miracle will save the 2004-05 NHL season after a four-hour negotiation session yesterday produced yet another massive divide between owners and players over the sport’s economic future.

The latest labor talks, held in Toronto and the third session since late May, called for further discussion on six different economic structures proposed by NHL officials two weeks ago. But that additional review left the NHL Players Association more convinced than ever the league only wants a union-breaking lockout.

The current collective bargaining agreement expires Sept.15, six weeks from now.

“Everything we’ve seen is that the league has been planning for this lockout for quite some time,” said Ted Saskin, union senior director of business affairs. “The only thing they’re proposing is a salary cap, something they know is unacceptable to us. I see no reason for optimism.”

Predictably, the league fired right back, accusing union officials of precisely the same intransigence and empty rhetoric. While each of the six league proposals is being viewed by the players as a salary cap in some form, they have come much more recently than any union offer.

The players last made a formal proposal on a new economic structure in October. That offer included a 5 percent rollback on all salaries, new controls on rookie salaries and the introduction of a luxury tax similar to one used in major league baseball. NHL owners quickly refused that offer and remain opposed to a luxury tax.

“We seem to be the only party negotiating lately,” said Bill Daly, NHL executive vice president. “We need to hear what their creative solutions really are. But it seems the only thing they find acceptable is the status quo. They’re married to the status quo, and that’s really unfortunate because that’s a recipe for disaster.”

The polarized battle remains centered on how best to divide money in a sport that has seen revenues and salaries skyrocket over the past decade but also two teams go bankrupt in the last two years. NHL officials say the league has lost nearly $2billion since 1995 and that players claim 76 percent of all revenues — figures the players dispute.

The two sides will meet again Aug.17 in New York, but an agenda has not been set. Saskin said the union is not currently preparing a new proposal. But when it does, he said it is possible the new offer will propose luxury tax rates and thresholds less severe than before. The basis for that would be recent free agent signings that have shown a slower rate of inflation, or in some cases outright reduction, compared to comparable deals over the past several years.

“We made that offer to reflect the market at that period of time,” Saskin said. “The market fluctuates, and it’s quite possible that if we return to that concept, the measured impact [to salaries] could be obtained at a less onerous rate.”

Mirroring baseball’s labor fight two years ago, much of the hockey scrum also centers on how to sustain competitive balance over the long term. Big NHL markets like Detroit, Philadelphia and Toronto are perennial payroll leaders and regularly play deep into the postseason. But this issue is one in which the union feels on particularly solid ground. Twelve different teams have played in the conference finals over the past three years, and the Stanley Cup Finals over that time period have included upstarts like Calgary, Tampa Bay, Carolina and Anaheim.

“We think there’s no basis for dispute on the issue of competitive balance,” Saskin said. “It’s much stronger than any of the other major sports leagues.”

But Daly said any conversation of maintaining the bulk of hockey’s current market conditions is pointless.

“We are not interested in simply making ‘Band-aid’ changes to an economic system that is so obviously and fundamentally flawed,” he said.

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