It's time for earnest negotiations

Updated: March 24, 2005, 1:39 PM ET
By Terry Frei | Special to ESPN.com

Not long ago, I posed this $2.1 billion question to NHL executive vice president Bill Daly:

Despite what was said when the NHL season was canceled, could the latest offers still be on the table if collective bargaining agreement negotiations resumed soon?

"That's something we're going to have to determine internally, and I can't tell you that we have an answer to that yet," Daly said. "If we can get back to the table quickly and try to hammer out the things we have to hammer out, in connection with this type of [salary cap] system, we're going to consider that very strongly as a possibility."

Common sense is that both sides in this mess should be acknowledging that it behooves both sides to get this done, and get it done quickly, to -- and this is stealing a line from commissioner Gary Bettman -- stop the bleeding.
The answer came last week.

And the answer was: Kind of.

The NHL came back with offers that were in the same rinks as what was on the table when the season died but nonetheless were considerably diluted. One offer involved an "unlinked" salary cap, one not linked to a percentage of revenues, the other didn't. In the perverse pattern of offer and counteroffer bargaining, it made "sense," because the NHLPA "needed" to be shown that not completely caving in at the final hour would cost the union -- or at least cost it even more.

But it was not common sense.

Common sense is that both sides in this mess should be acknowledging that it behooves both sides to get this done, and get it done quickly, to -- and this is stealing a line from commissioner Gary Bettman -- stop the bleeding.

Yet, the brinksmanship continues.

And so does the silliness -- on both sides of the table. It's bipartisan. We still have very intelligent men acting as if this is some sort of playground squabble. Tongues are sticking out. Lines are drawn in the sandbox, right in front of the marbles. Saving face still seems to be a major consideration, and we're not talking about getting stitched up after a fight. It all raises questions about motives, especially from the league side, because nothing has happened to eliminate the suspicion that a cabal of hard-line owners essentially scuttled any chance of compromise.

But again, one of the most darkly comic aspects of this dispute is the mistaken notion that any criticism of either faction means we're "taking sides."

Here's the side we're taking: neither.

Want a deadline? Now. Yesterday. Tomorrow. As soon as is humanly possible.

On that point, the NHL and NHLPA should be united -- for coinciding and overlapping selfish reasons.

If this is all about coming up with a system that enables the nontraditional or "weak" markets (Nashville, et al.) and inert ownerships (Chicago, Boston et al.), they're hurting themselves at this point.

By now, it is obvious that a settlement is going to involve a salary cap concept. They're arguing over the numbers.

For the good of the game, get it done.

The NHL's credibility is at low ebb -- and that's saying a lot, given the depths of the ebb at points in the past -- and the league must do what it can to retain season-ticket holders and advertisers and sponsors and anyone else who matters.

And the players need to know they can plan for having a place to play on this side of the Atlantic next season, with paychecks that make those from European franchises seem like chump change. Forget the notion that the paychecks are due to come until the fall, anyway, perhaps giving the players a renewed leverage. Careers are going down the drain. So is money. And so is the game.

Consider what happened during the week of the cancellation announcement. We had Mario Lemieux and Wayne Gretzky riding in, rescuing the season! OK, where were they the previous six months? Cowering in the background. And then after the announcement, we heard that there might be a reprieve because the sides were meeting again! And it turned out that it came off because a "premier player" (Daly's words) called Bettman and suggested that the league approach the NHLPA, because the union would make another offer, but that it was important that the union could say the league made the contact. That doesn't sound like bargaining, but conversation in the junior high cafeteria. And it turned out to be a sham because the NHLPA immediately issued a release about the upcoming "secret" talks, the offer never came and both sides were made to look even more ridiculous.

But that probably shouldn't have surprised us, given the post-Sept. 15 patterns of potentially powerful and progressive owners not stepping forward forcefully enough, and the NHLPA treating this as a can't-back-down challenge issued during the second period.

This should be subject to negotiation, of course, but it should be clear by now that "linkage" won't work in the NHL for one very fundamental reason: The two sides won't ever agree on the numbers. And that doesn't even mean dishonesty and doctored books have to be involved. In this era, there can be honest disagreements over what constitutes "hockey revenue." What's "hockey revenue" where ownerships have the deeds to the building, franchises in several leagues and the cable network that televises the games? Is anyone savvy enough to come up with a formula all can agree on?

That's a problem in the ongoing NBA collective bargaining negotiations -- or, if it isn't, the union has dropped the ball. And, gee, isn't that NBA salary cap something to emulate, with more exceptions than the tax code? And the NFL cap? It's based on non-guaranteed contracts, huge bonuses up front and enough television revenue to make quibbling over the total revenue numbers a waste of time.

The NHL? We'll try this one more time.

The two sides now should do what they should have done months ago, or at least after the Dec. 9 and 14 offer and counteroffer sessions in Toronto.

Negotiate. Somewhere. Almost every day. Prohibit members of the bargaining teams from sending out their laundry, going to the mall or having spouses ship suitcases to the site.

Don't negotiate by or through e-mail, fax or selective leaks.

Negotiate face-to-face.

Until it's done.

What's so hard about that?

Terry Frei is a regular contributor to ESPN.com. He is the author of the recently published "Third Down and a War to Go" and "Horns, Hogs, and Nixon Coming."

Terry Frei

Special to ESPN.com
Terry Frei is a columnist for the Denver Post. He is also the author of "Third Down and a War to Go" and "Horns, Hogs, and Nixon Coming."

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