- The Washington Times - Sunday, September 12, 2004

Oscar Wilde once said, “It’s not whether you win or lose, but how you place the blame.”

The Irish playwright wasn’t talking about the NHL’s bitter labor fracas, but he might as well have been.

For those looking for any shred of good news in the now-stalled hockey negotiations, there is one nugget: The players now freely acknowledge without reservation that the sport is ailing and in danger of slipping into oblivion. The tone of their talk is somewhat closer to the gloom-and-doom comments league officials have made for more than a year on the sport’s economics.

But instead of using that rickety bridge to start some meaningful dialogue, the two sides are fixated on who is responsible for the mess. A lockout is all but certain to start Wednesday.

The union, predictably, believes owner mismanagement and local market conditions have created a $224million loss listed by the NHL for the 2003-04 season, extending the league’s red ink over the past decade to nearly $2billion. Union leaders tagged three-quarters of last season’s sum on the shoulders of six teams, and more than a third of that solely within the New York market.

“Throughout the course of these negotiations, the league has placed the blame for their claimed losses on the players and the current [collective bargaining agreement],” said union chief Bob Goodenow. “That just isn’t the case.”

Owners, conversely, say the root of hockey’s ongoing woes, including 20 of 30 teams failing to record any profits last season, is the stubborn refusal of the players to contemplate corrective measures.

“We’re facing a union leadership that is unwilling to acknowledge our problems and unwilling to negotiate with us in a meaningful way to address these problems,” said Bill Daly, NHL executive vice president.

Management two months ago offered the players six “concepts” for an economic structure. The union quickly dismissed each as a version of a much-hated salary cap. Players last week finally presented a new proposal after 11 months of relative silence, basing their offer on a luxury tax and revenue sharing. It, too, was dead on arrival.

The hardening of each side’s position is not surprising given the mutual distrust and frustration that exists. But it also marks a shift of sorts for NHL commissioner Gary Bettman.

Hockey’s top boss spent much of the last two years emulating the Bud Selig playbook of labor relations. That playbook involved putting a gag on the owners so the league publicly speaks in one consistent voice. The plan also relies on a contracted economic study to buttress claims of fiscal distress and seeks a solution that brings small-market clubs into near-parity with their larger competitors.

In recent weeks, however, Bettman and the NHL veered from baseball’s course. In 2002, Selig, dealing with the accumulated scar tissue of 30 years worth of labor woes, turned moderate as the players’ strike date approached and reached a compromise deal to keep play going.

To many observers, hockey still has an opportunity to go in the same direction. A luxury tax, if it had truly punitive levels to act as a firm but not absolute control on spending, seems the logical middle ground between the owners’ desired salary cap and the players’ preference for a marketplace-based system.

But instead Bettman believes any luxury tax, regardless of threshold or tax rate, is insufficient to correct the current damage. His parting comment to the players last week was, “We’re not even speaking the same language.”

Coloring that mindset, as it has for months, is Bettman’s belief the court of public opinion will blame players for the lack of games this fall and winter and then welcome hockey back if a labor deal is reached with meaningful economic reform.

“[The players] are trying to get to a situation where we’re in a work stoppage, we’re missing games,” Daly said. “They believe that there will be some kind of pressure put on owners and put on the league as a result of that shutdown that will change our position. I have been saying repeatedly if that’s their view, they are making a very bad bet.”

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