CBA spin leaves everyone dizzy

There are 30 teams in the NHL -- and that's the only thing the league and players' association seem to agree on.

Updated: February 8, 2004, 3:02 AM ET
By Jim Kelley | ESPN.com

ST. PAUL, Minn. -- The commissioner of the National Hockey League, Gary Bettman, Saturday declared (and we'll use my words, not his here) that the on-ice product and economic system that is the NHL as we know it is broken and needs to be fixed.

The executive director of the National Hockey League Players' Association, Bob Goodenow, scoffed at the notion.

Gary Bettman
AP PhotoGary Bettman (above) said the NHL never proposed a salary cap. Bob Goodenow said it did.
The commissioner insisted that the league has never proposed a hard salary cap for individual teams and that anyone who says so is just plain wrong.

The executive director nearly laughed out loud at that one and said (we'll paraphrase him here) that the NHL took its unaudited income figure, subtracted its unaudited expenses, added in its out-of-the-hat profit margin, divided it by 30 (the number of teams in the NHL, and seemingly the one thing they agree on) and said the bottom-line figure was the figure it wanted for each club to operate under in the new NHL. That, according to the executive director, by any name is a hard salary cap for individual teams.

The commissioner said that the media should be careful about the information they dispense, adding that even the NHL should be held accountable for the information they dispense and that he was supremely confident that its information -- and especially its profit/loss numbers -- will withstand the toughest scrutiny.

The executive director said that the league's UROs (Unified Reports of Operation that the league makes available to teams and the players' association but never to reporters) are unverified and unaudited numbers submitted by the individual clubs and can pretty much be written to reflect whatever the author requires.

Enough already. Don't lock the players out. Don't lock the fans out. Lock me out!

Look, your humble ink-stained and computer-radiated servant spent the better part of a very fine day in the heart of the State of Hockey attempting to understand the issues that divide the two most formidable forces in the sport. Afterward he came away less informed, more confused and spun in so many different directions he couldn't hit the broadside of the Xcel Energy Center with a water bottle.

Jeremy Roenick may want the NHL to "wake up," but these guys had me fitted for the big sleep. In short order, I saw more spin than the inside of a trainer's laundry machine.

Enough already.

Why is this so difficult?

The NHL does have a problem. Its collective bargaining agreement is set to expire in about seven months (Sept. 15). In light of that, both sides have determined that talk is good. The problem is that all the talk is directed not at each other but at the media.

The commissioner has a list of problems that include economics, marketing and television pacts, and even an appalling lack of entertainment value in his primary product. He made it very clear that he intends to fix all of them. He said he wanted to do that in partnership with the players' association. Almost in the same sentence, however, he noted that by not heeding his warnings back in 1999, the parties have passed a point of no return and now some of the fixes may result in some significant pain for the players.

So much for the "come let us reason together" approach.

Now rest assured the commissioner, a lawyer in every sense, will resent me using my words instead of his and he'll likely object to my characterization of his approach. And to be fair, it's not entirely his fault that there has only been one formal bargaining session to date.

But spin is spin, and after a marathon session, I wasn't the only one feeling hung out to dry.

Goodenow is also a lawyer, and though he doesn't always wear it on his sleeve, he wasn't all that much more illuminating than the commissioner. He did a great job of deflecting his counterpart's assault and an even better job of going on the offensive in terms of knocking down Bettman's arguments, but when all was said and done, anyone in attendance had to come away wondering what exactly was said, where exactly this thing is going and when, if ever, it might be resolved.

To those questions, there are no answers.

No one ever said lockout, but at the end of the day, it was the only thing everyone in the room clearly understood.

Jim Kelley is the NHL writer for ESPN.com. Submit questions or comments to his mail bag.