- The Washington Times - Thursday, September 16, 2004

To the surprise of no one, the NHL yesterday carried out its threat to lock out its players and put the 2004-05 season in jeopardy.

The announcement came before the collective bargaining agreement between the league and its players’ union expired at midnight, ending nine years of labor peace.

“The very future of the game is at stake,” said commissioner Gary Bettman, confirming that training camps would not open this week as planned and outlining a very bleak economic picture that he claimed had to be fixed before the season could start.

For perhaps the first time, Bettman used the term “salary cap” to describe what the 30 NHL teams are demanding to help solve the financial crisis in the sport. The commissioner has spent the past two years carefully avoiding using those words, substituting the expression “cost certainty.”

Predictably, virtually every claim Bettman made was rejected by Bob Goodenow, the union executive director, speaking an hour after the NHL chief stated his case. Bettman maintained it was the union that had refused to negotiate or to make any new proposals for months.

“[This] is simply the wrong way to address the issues we are facing,” Goodenow said. “The players have been prepared to compromise for a very long time and have proposed frameworks that should already have produced a deal that is fair for all.”

Goodenow said it was hard to form a partnership with someone standing firm on a “‘my way or the highway’ approach.”

“The union is trying to win a fight, hoping the owners will give up,” Bettman said. “That will turn out to be a terrible error in judgment. Part of the job of union leadership is to understand the realities of the situation and not bury its head in a state of denial.”

The crux of the dispute is money. The league is generating more than $2billion in revenue; the dispute centers on how that sum is divided. As it stands now, the league claims, player “costs” — not necessarily just player salaries — account for about 75 percent of that figure, which results in two-thirds of the league’s 30 teams operating in the red.

To reverse the flow, the league is insisting on a salary cap, something the NBA and NFL have while Major League Baseball has a luxury tax. NHL owners say they can’t survive without one; players won’t even discuss that issue.

There is little doubt as to what has led to this situation. A minority of the owners have spent lavishly and often foolishly, driving up salaries for marginal players or aging superstars who are now just a shadow of what they once were. The ripple effect caused less well-heeled teams to try to keep pace resulting in average salaries jumping from $733,000 to $1.83million in just 10 seasons.

This is the third work stoppage in league history. In 1992 players went on strike for 10 days just before the playoffs demanding a bigger piece of the pie. And in 1994, Bettman and the owners locked the players out on the eve of the season, again when the CBA expired and no new agreement was at hand. The lockout came within days of forcing cancellation of the season; a 48-game campaign finally began on Jan.20, 1995.

No talks between the two sides are scheduled but, interestingly, players collectively seem to believe the matter will be settled by January and keep referring to that in off-the-cuff ways. Yesterday Vancouver center Trevor Linden, the NHLPA president, innocently referred to the dispute ending in “four months” but offered no additional information.

The talk about a January end to the lockout started in Toronto last weekend when players competing in the World Cup of Hockey often referred to the dispute ending right after the New Year. None could pin down where they had first heard that story but all thought it was more than rumor.

Interestingly, there could be a league connection. The NHL has a new broadcast partner this season on U.S. television, NBC, but the network doesn’t plan to air any games until after the first of the year. With the league realizing no TV revenue unless the network does, it may do all it can to get that broadcast started on time, the players reason.

Hope springs eternal.

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