- The Washington Times - Tuesday, December 14, 2004

TORONTO — NHL commission Gary Bettman will reject the collective bargaining agreement plan proposed last week by the players union this afternoon, leaving little hope of saving the 2004-05 season.

Bettman had made a take-it-or-leave-it ultimatum to the union — accept a salary cap or forfeit the season — and the locked-out players decided to test that Thursday. The union came forward with a stunning offer that included a 24 percent salary rollback plan, a reduction in rookie pay limits, a luxury tax, amendments to the arbitration process and much more.

But those two words — “salary cap” — were missing. As a result, Bettman and the league will offer a counterproposal today that “will be an adequate response” to the NHL Players Association’s plan, a counterproposal that will guarantee “future stability and long-term” health of the league and its 30 teams, the league said in a memo to its 30 teams that was leaked to a Canadian TV network.

That counterproposal will insist the players accept “cost certainty,” a system to contain escalating labor costs and prevent the owners from starting new bidding wars among themselves.

What happens next is uncertain. The memo was leaked early enough to give the union adequate time to prepare a response for this afternoon. The 1p.m. meeting could be brief, with the sides declaring there is nothing left to talk about and thus ending any suspense about a shortened season.

While acknowledging the union plan offers “short-term relief,” the memo maintains the proposal does not offer the financial stability the NHL has been looking for since the last league-imposed lockout 10 years ago.

Initially, the NHL thought it had won that labor dispute, but within days sharp player agents found massive loopholes in the legal language, turning the rookie salary cap into a joke with runaway performance bonuses that could be triggered by virtually anything and igniting salary wars among owners.

The league is trying to ensure that doesn’t happen again. Bettman wants a plan that will protect the owners from themselves while providing some form of revenue sharing to help financially weaker clubs not located in population centers compete with well-healed teams.

The NHLPA plan “falls well short of providing the fundamental systemic changes that are required to ensure that overall league economics remain in synch on a going-forward basis,” NHL executive vice president Bill Daly wrote to members of the ruling board of governors, alternate governors and most general managers.

It became apparent Sunday there was movement in the process when some club executives were willing to talk on a deep-background basis, filling in some of the blanks. Bettman earlier made good on his threat of six-figure fines if team personnel of any rank discussed the lockout publicly, but that threat was apparently lifted.

“[The union proposal] does nothing to address the problem,” one Eastern Conference executive said Sunday. “It basically keeps this [CBA] intact, and I personally don’t want anything to do with this CBA. We’ve had [the CBA] for 10 years, and we got killed. All the PA proposal does is roll things back for a year. Then we’re right back where we were.”

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