- The Washington Times - Thursday, February 3, 2005

The NHL Players Association quickly rejected the latest contract proposal made by the NHL yesterday as the labor dispute gripping the league dragged on.

Today is the 141st day of the lockout by owners, the longest work stoppage in league history. Through yesterday, 62 percent of the league’s 1,230-game schedule had been canceled.

A little more than two hours after the NHL submitted its plan, the union came back and made it plain again that it would not accept a proposal that included a salary cap — precisely what the NHL proposal included.

“The league today presented a written proposal with minor variations of concepts that were presented orally last Thursday,” said Ted Saskin, senior director of the union. “We told the league last week and again today that their multilayered salary cap proposals were not the basis for an agreement.”

In a strange twist, the union then suggested the two main antagonists, league commissioner Gary Bettman and NHLPA executive director Bob Goodenow, be invited back to participate in the negotiations. The pair had been excluded for the past five sessions in an effort to get the stalled talks moving.

Yesterday’s meeting lasted about four hours at an undisclosed location in Newark, N.J. It is assumed any meeting today will be at the same location.

“They asked for a meeting again [today], and we’ll see what they have to say,” said Bill Daly, the NHL’s chief legal officer, during an early evening conference call. “The [rejected] proposal was put together with their interests in mind, what they’ve communicated to us.”

Daly repeatedly stressed time was running short to save this season, a stand that at times didn’t seem too important to some members of management. Daly refused to say whether a drop-dead date to cancel the season had been discussed or how short a season, followed by a full slate of playoffs, might be acceptable.

Yesterday’s 13-point proposal, covering six years, included what the NHL called a “floating team payroll range,” a new euphemism for a salary cap. The plan called for teams to pay at least $32million in salary and benefits to players but no more than $42million. The two figures would be adjusted yearly “to reflect changes in league-wide revenue,” the NHL said. Daly acknowledged that exact definitions of revenue streams had yet to be decided.

The Washington Capitals ended last season with a payroll of $35million, about $20million less than when it started the season with the Jaromir Jagr era still in full bloom. Only seven of the league’s 30 teams were under the bottom-line figure last season, and 13 were above the $42million ceiling, with some of them doubling that figure.

Bettman announced the start of the lockout Sept.15, claiming the league collectively lost nearly $500million during the past two seasons. The union promptly disputed those figures, and Forbes magazine seemed to agree, reporting the losses were less than half that.

Ten years ago, when owners locked players out for 103 days, the average NHL salary was $733,000. Last season the average was $1.8million, with the median salary $800,000, Bettman is demanding the average be no higher than $1.3million.

Meanwhile, about 335 NHL players were competing in various European leagues as of last night, with many countries closing their doors to further imports from North America. The rosters are bulging with jobless NHL refugees. Native players are now unemployed, and there simply is no more room.

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