NHL's future clouded by conflict

Updated: May 25, 2004, 9:35 PM ET
By Jim Kelley | ESPN.com

TAMPA, Fla. -- Give the commissioner of the National Hockey League credit for this: He will not rain on his soon-to-be-completed Stanley Cup parade.

But beware. The gathering storm that has long been forecast is about to break.

"We can't live any longer on the current terms," Gary Bettman said when asked whether training camps would open after the World Cup of Hockey, which concludes Sept. 14.

Bettman stopped short of saying "lockout," but only because he didn't want the word attributed to his lips or stealing headlines when the league's showcase event -- the Stanley Cup finals -- was about to get under way.

Yet there was no mistaking the message, delivered with the finality of doom itself. Bettman measured each word, seemingly timing them to produce maximum impact and convey unwavering resolve.

With just slightly more than three months left until the current collective bargaining agreement expires on Sept. 15, no substantial progress is being made. No future meetings are on the immediate schedule, and the only thing that appears to have come out of a half day of talks Tuesday is that both sides understand each other's position.

That understanding is the crux of the problem.

It's dangerous to boil something so complex down to a single paragraph, but here it goes:

Bettman and team owners cite massive financial losses and are looking to reinvent the NHL's economic wheel. Under the guise of a salary cap or some other form of cost certainty, they want an arrangement that controls costs. After years of "tremendous instability," they want to usher in an era of competitive stability, one they claim will make the players partners in an enterprise that will benefit all.

The players, on a good day, doubt that. The NHL Players' Association, their recognized bargaining agent, has yet to even agree to acknowledge that it will even think about entertaining the concept.

It's understandable when you consider where both sides are coming from.

Bettman cut his corporate teeth in the National Basketball Association, where his legacy is the framework of a salary-cap system that has helped bring prosperity to the league and its players. He knows the value of limiting the players' earnings to a percentage of revenue and argues, sometimes passionately, sometimes vehemently and quite often persuasively, for what he knows best -- a system that controls costs in order to produce profits.

His counterpart, Robert Goodenow, executive director of the NHLPA, formed his reputation in the game as a hard-nosed player agent and a hardball union negotiator. He knows the power of leverage and how to use it. He has long modeled his economic theories on the foundations established by Major League Baseball's CBAs, the so-called free-market plan, and he has used the unwavering support of his membership as a weapon that has often brought ownership to its collective knees. He has a track record of success that both he and his membership can't afford to have end.

Which is why it has come to this point.

Both men can put forth persuasive arguments extolling the merits of their approach. Both can point to history as support of their respective cases. And both appear to have developed such an intense dislike for the other's point of view that it's fair to assume the two would dispute the merits of anything put in front of them, including the shape of a puck.

It's also fair to argue that each man has a pressing need to prevail in this showdown: Bettman to keep the faith within the ownership ranks and, perhaps, his job; Goodenow to keep his membership united and, by extension, his mandate to lead.

It would be easy to offer up a simple way to get around this: Have both men step aside and let other, less entrenched personalities attempt to resolve the conflict either through negotiation, mediation or arbitration.

It would be easy and nice, but it would also be impossible. Both sides have aligned their forces for the showdown that is upon them. To even blink, let alone step back in hopes of moving in a new direction, would be perceived as a sign of weakness, the first step down the road to failure.

Yet both men seem determined to weather the storm -- no matter what the cost -- as it gathers on the horizon.

By implying that players will be locked out of camps, Bettman is signaling it's about to start.

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

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