Monday, December 13, 2004
Updated: December 14, 12:21 PM ET
Peace in the crease?
By Graham Hays
All hockey fans want for Christmas is a season.
Come on, even Ralphie ended up getting his "Red Ryder" BB gun in "A Christmas Story" ... although come to think of it, he nearly shot his eye out, too.
But despite significant movement by the NHL Players Association last week -- the group offered to dramatically slash salaries across the board -- the NHLPA and the NHL appear at an impasse over the true nature of the game's financial future.
The two sides have agreed to meet and continue negotiations in Toronto this week in what shapes up as a last-ditch effort to save the season, and possibly the league.
Lucky for you, Page 2 obtained an advance copy of the talks.
Arbitrator: First of all, I'd like to thank both parties for agreeing at the last moment to allow me to sit in on these negotiations as an independent arbitrator. As per our agreement, my suggestions represent non-binding mediation and carry no formal weight. As a former general manager of the New York Yankees, it's a position for which I am uniquely qualified.
Anyway, shall we get started and see if we can't find some way to get the games going again?
NHL representative: Whoa, why don't you just go ahead and move your chair over to their side of the table. We haven't even started talking, and you're recommending things right in line with the other side's demands.
Arbitrator: Sorry? I assumed both parties were in agreement that the overriding goal of these negotiations was to resume play in the NHL?
NHL representative: Yeah, and we've got a saying up in Canada about what assuming makes out of you, buddy. For now, let's just say that NHL ownership is willing to discuss idea of re-starting play. At some point. Under the right conditions. If nothing better comes along.
Union representative: See, this is what we're up against. These guys know more about the bottom line than the top shelf. They don't care about the game like we do. It's all about turning a profit and squeezing the last buck out of the process. Getting back on the ice is the most important thing for us, and for the fans.
Arbitrator: As long as it doesn't involve a salary cap, or lowering the average salary below $1.83 million?
Union rep: Well, we've all got families to feed.
NHL rep: You're feeding them on more than Tim Horton's donuts these days. That's an increase of more than $1.2 million over the average salary in 1994-95. No wonder most of our teams are swimming in red ink.
Union rep: Get Tie Domi in here and we'll show you some red ink.
Arbitrator: Easy now, we did have a penalty box installed in the corner, and Don Koharski is waiting out in the hall. Actually, he's a waiter out in the hall. Turns out the lockout hasn't been that easy on the referees, either. Or the equipment managers. Or the beer vendors. The Zamboni drivers are making a few bucks giving kids rides on "Santa's Super-Sleigh," but that well is going to run dry in a couple of week.
So let's keep things in perspective, huh?
Union rep: Hey, we're the ones who took the initiative last week. It's the other side that treats our phone calls like the one from the friend you've been avoiding for weeks who you know is going to try and make you feel like an ingrate for passing on the extra ticket they scored to the tractor pull or the Three Doors Down concert.
We came up with a proposal to immediately cut every salary by 24 percent, from Joe Sakic to Joe Sacco.
Arbitrator: Joe Sacco is still in the league?
Union rep: I'm attempting to make a point. Can't you let anything slide?
NHL rep: Great, so you offer up a flat-tax on salaries. Golly gee, let me get Steve Forbes on the phone. It doesn't solve the inherent problem in the system. We need a salary cap.
Union rep: This proposal saves owners upward of a billion dollars over six years! It's not out fault if you nitwits go right back to paying obscene amounts of money for guys who would have a tough time making the cut as extras in "Miracle." We're even willing to concede on the implementation of a luxury tax to try and help you protect you from yourselves.
Honestly, how do your owners stay rich? What would happen if we let them loose on eBay for a day? People would be getting thousands of dollars for old Lite-Brites, or the Anna Kournikova "Maxim."
Oops, that last one is a sore subject for some our members. Can we strike that from the record?
NHL rep: Talk all you want about the spending habits of the league's ownership. Your offer simply isn't good enough. It doesn't solve the inherent problem.
Arbitrator: And what's the inherent problem?
NHL rep: Americans don't like hockey.
Arbitrator: Ahh, I can see how that might be a problem. Look, why don't we start smaller? Is there something other than the league's financial structure we can negotiate? Sort of a warm-up run?
Union rep: Well, we're not to keen on Carolina.
Arbitrator: The whole region?
Union rep: It's just that our players don't feel very comfortable there. Nobody really cares about the game; they have the second-worst home attendance in the league. And the people who do show up keep yelling at them to take three-pointers. And they act like we're throwing them out when we make them leave after the third period. They keep asking for their money back.
And they put a spoiler and racing tires on the Zamboni.
NHL rep: Are you serious? Contraction is not on the table. End of discussion. Besides, Carolina has a burgeoning tech corridor, a stable population and some of the best sports fans in the country. It's not their fault the Hurricanes have a tougher time finishing checks than Don Johnson.
Arbitrator: OK, let's try again. What else is on your list of concerns?
Union rep: Health and beauty products.
Arbitrator: Come again?
Union rep: Health and beauty products. Lotions, mostly. But some skin revitalizers, moisturizers, and those sorts of things.
NHL rep: This is ridiculous. You're just making things up now.
Union rep: Hey, we haven't even brought up some of the more, umm, obscure requests from our rank and file.
NHL rep: Like what?
Union rep: Well, not to name names, but a guy whose name sounds a lot like Gergei Pedorov wanted us to negotiate access to Maria Sharapova's phone number. And Jeremy Roenick has been rather insistent about getting slot machines in the locker rooms.
Arbitrator: Seriously, guys, that is water in those pitchers on your side of the table, right? I mean, I saw a guy in a Kokanee delivery uniform out in the hall. Health and beauty products made the cut?
Union rep: Have you ever smelled a hockey player's hands? This is a serious concern. Mark Recchi alone spent over $10,000 last year, strictly on lotions from Bath and Bodyworks to try and cover up the smell. And we had three guys whose wives filed for divorce last year because of their husbands' hands.
Arbitrator: Guys couldn't keep their hands to themselves, so to speak?
Union rep: Ha, ha, very funny. This is a serious request. It doesn't seem out of line to have some "Coconut and Lime" or "Juniper Breeze" lotions in the locker rooms.
NHL rep: Could be a marketing opportunity for us; there are lots of mothers out there with sons playing hockey. We might be willing to concede on that one.
Arbitrator: Terrific, that's a start! Now how about taking that spirit of cooperation and getting back to some of the financial issues at the crux of this lockout?
Union rep: All right, we're willing to put the idea of talking about a salary cap on the table, assuming a few guarantees are part of any discussion. First, we want a cap on the number of players with less than five years experience and earning the minimum salary that any team can have at one time. This can't be something that squeezes our veteran members out of the league. Second, if we were to agree to any sort of salary cap, we'd rescind any offer to immediately cut salaries. Third, we want a percentage of every television deal in perpetuity linked to a special pension fund for retired players.
And lastly, we want Motley Crue's "Girls, Girls, Girls" played along with the American and Canadian anthems before each game.
Arbitrator: That sounds reasonable enough. How about the NHL's position?
NHL rep: We might be willing to negotiate on those points. But we'd like to add an addendum to our initial request for a salary cap ...
Arbitrator: How did I know you'd say that?
NHL rep: In the interest of promoting the best financial future for our league, a number of our owners would like the players to consider some minor cosmetic changes to the game. We're thinking shorts instead of hockey pants. And we'd like to experiment with getting rid of the sticks ... and the ice. And maybe shrinking the goal and raising it 10 feet off the ground? Out of curiosity, how do the players feel about dunking?
Arbitrator: You must be joking.
NHL rep: It's just that there's this 18-year-old kid outside of Akron, who we really think could sell some tickets ...
Arbitrator: That's it, I'm out of here. I knew I should have taken the gig in the Ukraine. Anyway, I'm leaving both of you with Don Cherry. You all deserve each other.
Graham Hays is an editor for ESPN.com SportsNation when he isn't moonlighting for Page 2. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.