- The Washington Times - Wednesday, March 2, 2005

NEW YORK — NHL commissioner Gary Bettman yesterday hinted the league was considering playing next season even if its unionized players are not involved.

The veiled threat was the strongest public message to the NHL Players Association to date and an apparent attempt to force the union back to the bargaining table to end the labor dispute, now close to six months old.

Not wishing to get involved with the subject of replacement players, Bettman refused to be specific about where players would come from if there were no new contract and the league restarted.

“We haven’t made any decisions other than to plan to open the rinks and hopefully with our players under a new [collective bargaining agreement],” said Bettman, presumably speaking for the board of governors. “We have not been more specific in terms of what our plan will be; hopefully it’s an alternative proposition that we never have to focus on because our commitment remains making a fair partnership deal with our players.”

Bettman’s warning came after a five-hour meeting of the league’s ruling board of governors, alternate governors and general managers. No precise head count was available, but it was thought more than 100 owners and ranking front office members were present.

It was the first meeting of the board since Bettman locked the players out Sept. 15. Yesterday’s meeting was at the same hotel where the lockout was announced and where Bettman announced official cancellation of the season Feb. 16.

While many owners bolted from the hotel after the meeting adjourned at 5:20 p.m., electing to fight their way to airports through rush-hour traffic in Manhattan, a few remained and appeared to be in agreement on two key points: The owners of the 30 teams were unified in their hope for a better financial atmosphere for the league, and it was imperative to get back to the bargaining table as soon as possible.

Bettman and various club officials said the longer it takes to reach an agreement on a new CBA, the harder it will be to restart the league, which has not played a game since the Stanley Cup was won by Tampa Bay in June 2004.

“You can’t just come up to Oct. 1, flip a switch and say we’re going to have a season,” Montreal general manager Bob Gainey said. “For every day we’re not doing something now, that will take two days somewhere down the line. You have to sign players, sell tickets, all those things.”

None of those things has been done since the league shut down in September with on-and-off meetings, some lasting only a few minutes. There was major movement by both parties just before Bettman pulled the plug, with the owners coming off their hard-and-fast stand on “cost certainty” or a salary cap and the players doing an about-face by agreeing to a soft cap. The movement wasn’t enough to save even a small portion of the season, the first in major North American professional sports history to be wiped out by a labor dispute.

If getting as quick a settlement as possible was paramount to the league’s interest, Bettman was asked why he wouldn’t call the union immediately to set up a meeting.

He did not rule that out.

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