Sides stuck in staredown not stalemate
With just three months until the collective bargaining agreement between the National Hockey League and the NHL Players' Association expires on Sept. 15, progress toward a new deal can be summed up in one word:
"You can't even say they are at a stalemate," said one source on the periphery of the negotiation process. "To be stalemated means both sides have reached a point in the process where they feel they can't give any more. These guys don't even have negotiations scheduled so they can get to that point."
That's not to say both sides aren't talking; they just aren't talking to each other.
After recent NHLPA meetings in Toronto, union president Trevor Linden acknowledged the league has financial problems and charged that his group already has made substantial concessions. He detailed an offer, made to the league in October, that rolls back salaries by 5 percent, reduces the entry-level salary structure and institutes a luxury tax system, one similar to Major League Baseball's in which teams exceeding a payroll limit pay teams that do not.
Linden said that some of the players were concerned that the association went too far, adding that the group is adamant in resisting what it contends are league demands for a salary cap.
"We feel like we've taken their issues and dealt with them, and put in a plan that would solve the problems," Linden said. "But we're not going to talk about a hard-cap system, and that's what we keep getting shown to us."
Not so, said Bill Daly, executive vice president and chief legal officer of the NHL. Daly claims the association has engaged in "self-serving and misleading" rhetoric about a cap proposal and has conducted a campaign of "misinformation" about the tone and tenor of the talks and the problems the league faces.
The league has maintained that it lost $273 million last season and points to a league-commissioned audit -- one rejected by the players' association -- that claims the league pays up to 75 percent of its income to the players. It's a figure the league claims it can no longer sustain.
Daly also said that the league is offering the players a partnership and that "the union is responsible for making this a one-issue negotiation." The league has offered a variety of options for "cost certainty" and the players have rejected them, he added.
"All they have offered are Band-Aid changes to the status quo," Daly said. "That's not what I call a willingness to negotiate."
The seemingly set-in-stone positions have led to a variety of doomsday scenarios, including a league shutdown of a year or more. Players are contemplating playing next season in Europe. Some have considered the dubiously financed World Hockey Association, a revival of the former NHL alternative. Both sides also claim to possess well-funded war chests, unflinching resolve and the unwavering support of their respective constituencies.
None of which addresses the real issue: What would work best for hockey, and how do the two sides get to that point?
Commissioner Gary Bettman has positioned himself as the flag bearer for "cost certainty," which the players' association translates to salary cap. His counterpart, NHLPA executive director Bob Goodenow, is steadfastly opposed to any cap proposal and argues for status quo, or what he calls a free-market economy.
While it's understandable the commissioner wants a system that works best for the 30 owners of NHL teams, there is growing debate as to whether a hard cap model is indeed workable for a majority of teams.
A cap of $31 million, the commissioner's first volley in these negotiations, would result in a loss for many small-market clubs that claim to have lost millions with a payroll and additional expenses below that number. Because of the threat of a substantial fine, no club owner has addressed the issue publicly. However, some are said to be lobbying more for revenue sharing and a luxury tax on their free-spending counterparts than for a hard cap.
At the same time, under the current system, the newly crowned Stanley Cup champion Tampa Bay Lightning would have to come up with an additional $15 million just to keep their current roster intact. For a team that, before the playoff run, claimed to have lost money on a payroll of $36,435,379 (Feb. 19, 2004, NHL salary matrix), it's a leap it simply can't afford.
The league does not dismiss revenue sharing, but if it does come into play, the particulars are bound to be an issue. Most clubs acknowledge the need for competitive economic balance, but the richer clubs see no reason to give to a point where it weakens their ability to compete and satisfy a consumer base that is willing to pay for that success. This is reflected in the fact that the league has conceded its willingness to talk about revenue sharing but has not yet made public any detailed plans.
In addition, a cap does not automatically solve other vexing issues, such as arbitration rights, rookie salary and bonus structures, the qualifying age for free agency (both restricted and unrestricted) and the qualification of restricted free agents. Those are huge issues for many executives, some of whom believe their so-called partners have used and abused the last CBA to drive up operating costs.
According to the source, a revenue-sharing scheme is the key to getting a deal done. But that won't happen until the league moves away from the concept of a hard cap and the players' association agrees to a factual accounting of the league's revenues.
Only then can a plan for divvying up those revenues and restoring competitive financial balance be reached. Neither side is anywhere close to that point.
Despite the doom and gloom scenarios, the tough talk and the lack of serious negotiations, some still hold out hope for a settlement before the current agreement expires.
"I'm still a wishful thinker," Calgary Flames winger Jarome Iginla told the Canadian Press. "I know the news isn't positive right now. But contract negotiations happen to players and it takes time and then they get it done late, that's my hope."
Right now, hope is about all there is to go on.
Jim Kelley is the NHL writer for ESPN.com. Submit questions or comments to his mail bag.
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