- The Washington Times - Friday, May 13, 2005

For more than a year, the NHL and the NHL Players Association have been dickering (negotiating is too strong a word) over the contents of a new collective bargaining agreement.

Dozens of meetings have been held with virtually no progress. An entire season has been canceled, and the prospect looms greater every day that another season will face the same fate.

Commissioner Gary Bettman has represented the league and Bob Goodenow, executive director of the NHLPA, the union. They have accomplished nothing. Their failure to get anything positive done has pushed the league to the brink of extinction in the minds of many. Fewer and fewer people say they missed the NHL in its year of hibernation, and the league didn’t have that many fans to begin with.

?Our sport is in danger of becoming irrelevant unless both sides immediately put an end to this nonsense,? Hall of Fame defenseman Bobby Orr wrote recently in the Lawrence (Mass.) Eagle-Tribune.

It is past time for Bettman and Goodenow to walk away and let other parties take over, to allow negotiating to begin.

The lockout will be eight full months old by the end of the week — the longest labor dispute in pro sports history — and more than enough time has passed for reasonable people to bring it to a conclusion.

But the two sides are not even close. The concept of a salary cap has been agreed upon, but that hinges on league revenue, and the sides can’t agree upon even the definition of what constitutes revenue.

That is only the beginning. There are dozens of side issues that have to be ironed out before the first skate is laced. Among them are international agreements with European federations and the Canadian junior system, revenue sharing, free agency, arbitration and qualifying, the status of 2004-05 contracts, a separate cap for rookies, the 2005 draft and dozens more.

There is no other individual in the sport who commands the instant respect and attention of every person associated with hockey as does Wayne Gretzky, the managing partner of the Phoenix Coyotes. When he speaks, all other conversations stop. He doesn’t waste time with small talk; he gets right to the point.

Gretzky also is a reasonable man who can listen, the latter an important ingredient that apparently has been missing throughout all this dickering. He would be an excellent choice to sit at a bargaining table and get right to the crux of the matter: What are the issues and how can we solve them today?

A good person to advise him would be Lou Lamoriello, president and general manager of the New Jersey Devils, a tough-as-nails individual who believes the sport must come first.

On labor’s side, Orr would be an excellent pick to represent the players. Like Gretzky, he changed the way the game was played, and his brilliant career was cut short only by bad knees — after he had won eight Norris trophies. He is now an agent. Advising him could be Brian Burke, who has been a player, agent, general manager and head of the league’s hockey operations department.

Lip service from current negotiators aside, the only agenda these people have is to get the game back where it belongs: on the ice in front of fans. They all command the immediate respect and attention of the media, which is not always the case with Bettman and Goodenow. And they all feel a deep responsibility to the game, first and foremost.

This is the second week in May and it may seem early to be preaching Armageddon, but in fact time is already running down on the 2005-06 season. By now teams usually have a solid handle on season ticket sales, sponsorships, the leasing of suites, advertising and the like, but none of that can be done if there is nothing concrete to say there will be a 2005-06 season.

?Forget the finger-pointing, the blame game,? wrote Orr. ?Forget trying to squeeze every ounce of advantage out of a new deal. Stop the PR spins. Use common sense and creativity and get this sport back where it belongs. … It’s time to stand up and make a commitment, to quit killing this game and start caring about it.

?They’ve made no progress in two years, and they have no excuses.?

Enough said. If the owners and players care about the game, move Bettman and Goodenow out of the picture now and bring in people who care. They can start with Wayne Gretzky and Bobby Orr.

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