Both leaders taking big risks

Updated: September 16, 2004, 5:43 PM ET
By Mark Kreidler | Special to ESPN.com

Not that the hockey negotiations aren't going to proceed in utterly good faith, but the NHL owners piled up a $300 million war chest and the players union long ago warned its members to be ready to go 18 months without a paycheck.

Not that the negotiations aren't quite as good as resolved, but the owners say a salary cap is the only way to go and the players say the one thing they'll never accept is a salary cap.

Gary Bettman
Gary Bettman is entrusted with undoing the damage that his own owners did.
Not that this thing has a chance to stretch out to the point of essentially jeopardizing the NHL's standing as one of the Big Four pro sports in the United States, but the guy who runs the league is already describing it as "out of gas" and his union counterpart is using words like "disingenuous" to describe managment's position -- and "catastrophic" to describe the possible effects of, say, a formal declaration of impasse.

So welcome to Hell, Gary Bettman and Bob Goodenow. They've had your table waiting for a while, now.

Seeing as how things have reached the Pure Destruction phase of the operation, you can rather safely bet on only one of these league leaders walking away from the thing with his job still stuffed inside his wallet. If the league is struck dumb by the force of this failure to negotiate, it'll be Bettman taking the fall. If the union is forced to give back (by most recent ownership proposal) something like half a million bucks per player -- per year -- in average salary, well, that'll be Goodenow saying adios on his way out the door.

And those aren't just the stakes personally; they represent the respective futures of the opposing sides in this intramural face-slapping contest. This one's a mother. Somebody's going down.

From the outside looking in, Bettman's position appears the most tenuous, if only because he's essentially a commissioner trying to undo damage he says has been inflicted upon his league -- on his own watch. Remember, this current fiscal mess, with Bettman claiming almost $500 million in ownership losses over the past two years alone, traces back to the agreement put in place (and once renewed) via the lockout of 1994-95 -- a Bettman-led crusade.

Of course, that crusade popped a hamstring somewhere along the line and never did result in the kind of "cost certainty" (that's a salary cap, for those keeping book at home) that the owners said they had to have in order to operate. Now Bettman and his Guvs are essentially claiming that their warnings back then were real, which is just a roundabout way of admitting they've spent themselves into the ditch and want the players to throw them a ladder so they can climb out.

The owners, according to their own surveys, currently spend roughly 75 percent of their revenues on player salaries. Why do they do this? Well, because they do, that's why. And now Bettman is leading the charge not merely to hold the line on salaries, but to actually roll them back dramatically -- a nearly 30 percent average pay cut.

Anybody know a pro sports union that is planning to agree to a 30 percent reduction anytime soon? Of course you don't. And there lies the great danger for the owners, a kind of desperate, this-is-our-last-shot posturing that implicitly threatens to take the entire league down with it. Since this isn't the NBA, MLB or NFL, we'll go ahead and file that one under Ludicrous Chances Taken With a Shaky Sport.

Bob Goodenow
Bob Goodenow will settle for anything but a salary cap
But that doesn't absolve Goodenow of the clear risk he's running on behalf of the players represented by the union here. While Goodenow says his side has advanced a fair rack of proposals, any of which would address the owners' concerns (and the most recent of which included a luxury tax and revenue sharing), it's clear that the union leader believes the owners will give in eventually, just as they did that long decade ago.

That's an audacious position to take, considering the owners' collective war chest and the fact that they've never wavered on their desire for a salary cap in this new round of conversations -- not once. It was telling that Bettman's comments on Wednesday included the notion that it's actually cheaper for the owners to shut things down altogether, the commish saying, "Unfortunately, we lose less money by not playing."

Goodenow apparently considers most of that shop talk, which strikes us as the most dangerous assumption he could make on behalf of his players' futures. But the larger issue is simply that hockey already is being pushed to the margins of U.S. sporting society, and what sets up as an all-time brawl betwen ownership and talent has the lurking capacity to shove the thing all the way off.

Or, to put it another way: There's always the chance of impasse, a legal declaration under which Bettman's side would seek to unilaterally impose a new system, attempt to break the union and basically invite a hailstorm of legal challenges in two countries -- which would have the effect, of course, of draining every last drop of blood from the league.

That's the scenario Goodenow saw fit to label as potentially catastrophic. He's being too kind by half: An impasse would shred this sport in the U.S., period. And Gary Bettman and Bob Goodenow would be the leaders of record for that dismantling. This just in: It would likely be one of their last acts, as well.

Mark Kreidler is a columnist with the Sacramento Bee and a regular contributor to ESPN.com