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Friday, January 28, 2005

Owners Standing Firm


It's clear now, more than ever, that NHL solidarity is not going to waiver under any circumstances. In fact, one could argue that the stance of the owners has grown significantly stronger during the 'negotiation process' - a term that I use loosely.

The proposals from the NHL have always had a salary cap and linkage between salaries and revenues. And the latest proposal, which has obviously been scoffed at by the players, as my cousin and exhaulted sports columnist James explains, is no different. However, not only does the latest proposal contain salary restrictions, it contains three levels of them. That's right, three different thresholds with which the braintrust of the owners suggests will secure the future of every single existing NHL team.

Arbitration has been capped, i.e. a limit has been placed on the amount of an arbitration award, proposed revenue sharing continues to be at laughable levels, and published reports point to sources that say there is an individual team salary cap of $42 million, with a payroll basement of $32 million. On top of that, the players' contend that there is also an overall league cap of 54 per cent of revenues. This is also reportedly in addition to an initial salary rollback.

In my humble opinion, the fact that the league has shown so little room for movement, and in some cases, their offers have regressed from a player's perspective, it appears clear that the league mandate is to dismantle the NHLPA as it currently exists and construct a league based entirely on the NHL's vision. It was highly speculated previously that this was the case, however, I was reluctant to buy into the concept that the NHL had no intentions of seriously negotiating. But the last two weeks of meetings and bantering have shown me that the NHL will have an entirely new landscape when - or even if - it returns, and in no way are they prepared to give up any ground to the players.

As Ken Dryden puts it this way:
"Restraint will never come from individuals restraining themselves. The only way in which restraint happens is when the structure dictates it. I think that's at least part of the solution."
The key part of that statement is that it must be at least part of the solution. The playing field must be made more suitable for the teams that continue to lack the resources to compete.

It is widely mused that even in October, you can officially eliminate 15 teams from Stanly Cup contention. And in reality, that's not that far off base. If a league has members who cannot compete because of an uneven playing field, then why bother having them in the league at all? For this very reason, the boys at the top must be restrained and the bottom feeders must be helped in order to make the league stronger as a whole.

That's where revenue sharing comes in. It's vital, and I find it deplorable that the NHL has continually preached the viability of all 30 franchises yet somehow has the audacity to leave meaningfull revenue sharing off the table. The owners have shifted all of the weight onto the shoulders of the players and that is completely haywire.

The player stance is equally unmoving. They may have to face reality a bit here and accept the fact that the economic landscape must be cleaned up and that involves some form of effective salary restraints. They have had a highly lucrative run over the last ten years and it's crystal clear that the run is now over. However, I do understand some of their concerns. For example, I don't believe the owners any more than the NHLPA does on what the actual revenues are. How can they be trusted? The players also must continue to hammer away the concept of revenue sharing. I'm almost shocked that this card hasn't been played with a much higher profile by Bob Goodenow.

However you want to look at this and from whichever side of the pendulum you align yourself with, one fact cannot be argued: The NHL is in serious trouble if this lockout continues any longer. In fact, there may never be an NHL as we know it again. The damage may be that substantial. And what boggles my mind even more than the idiocy with which each side has conducted themselves, is the fact that the fans and the overall welfare of the game itself seems to be pushed off into the background of each party's pea-brains.

I have a message for both the NHL and the NHLPA: Wake up. In six more months there will be nothing left to fight about because the only ones who will care about the NHL at that point will be you.

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