CBA 'talk' has only just begun

History says that talk between the NHL and the NHLPA will get a lot worse before it gets better.

Updated: September 17, 2003, 9:51 AM ET
By Ray Ratto | Special to ESPN.com

"Somebody once said the NHL is a vortex fueled by millionaires and run by idiots. There are important people who have been in place for eight or nine years and never did anything right, and they are still employed.''

-- Hockey player agent Rich Winter

Other than that, negotiations between the owners and players union ought to go just fine.

Yes, this is hockey's version of Baseball 1994, and while hockey had its own labor problem that year, it didn't come close to the frothy animosity and put-a-spike-through-his-temple loathing that made the ball strike much worse than the puck strike.

The talk is just tough now, but it's edging slowly toward downright insulting, and before you know it, it'll go past "Your proposal is stupid'' and move to "Your proposal is stupid because it came from you.''

And since in hockey, "spoiling for a fight'' means the same thing as "a fight,'' you can make pretty strong book on there being a long, ugly, nasty and painful work stoppage on the come.

Not just because some outside observers say so, mind you. Try this from Gary The Bettman:

"I've observed recent quotes from the union and some players saying they expect a work stoppage for a season to a season and a half ... Why on earth would they say that?''

Because the two sides in this gruesome little argument aren't trying to come to a hard-won settlement, that's why. The two sides are going to try to paint the moon bloody, with their enemies on the business end of the brush.

This is how baseball brought its sport to its knees nearly a decade ago -- with the real goal of talks being the other guy's head on the end of a spike. The result was a lost World Series, large hunks of two seasons missing, and an economic renaissance stopped so cold that it still hasn't fully returned.

Now there are lots of reasons why the NHL shouldn't do this -- why the economics of the times, why good sense, and why simple logic demand that the owners and union find a way to meet their separate needs. We do not need to cover those arguments here, because (a) you know them, and (b) because they have no relevance to this discussion.

This is simpler than that. This is about union head Bob Goodenow and the hard-line owners wearing commissioner Gary Bettman's clothes, pistols drawn and food and water saved up for months. It's Hockey Apocalypse, with your hosts Celine Dion and Don Cherry.

Think not? Hah! In fact, double hah! That's what everyone said in '94 when Bud Selig and Don Fehr decided that negotiating was less fulfilling than cannibalism.

They wouldn't blow up the postseason, people said. They wouldn't damage the sport just out of vindictiveness, they said. They wouldn't be so stupid.

Well, we all know how that ended up, because it wasn't about issues after all, but who got to eat whom. We know this because working and recompense conditions for the players did not change in any noticeable way when play resumed in mid-1995.

And that's where we are now with these guys, too. The league has the added benefit of having a couple of teams going hand-on-thigh with bankruptcy, but the union can counter with, "Well, I saw an awful lot of money getting thrown around this summer, right, Woody Guthrie?''

It's a brief skate-around from there to "This is your fault, you bastards'' and "So's your mother.''

This childish hate-o-fest will eventually run its course, but the dynamics of modern labor negotiations require that that childishness manifest itself late in the process. That way, negotiations can turn into spit-fests at the time that they should be closing gaps, and before you know it, there's a run on limos at the valet stand, and everyone goes home pissed.

They stay pissed, too, until suddenly someone looks up and says, "You know, we hate losing money even more than we hate you.'' A new contract is agreed upon within 18 hours of this revelation.

But we're not there yet, and there's no way to get there without all the intermediate steps, starting with guys saying, "No wonder they say they're losing money. They're dopes. They should lose money."

That is a quote that will be filed away for later, like this one from agent J.P. Barry: "I have several players who make $10 million and more, and they're living like they're only making $400,000 or $500,000.''

The quotes, and others like them, will be used again and again in different forms, as the people running the sport load their guns and zero in on their own big toes -- while actually trying to aim at the other guy's stomach.

Hey, go argue with history. It's not much different than talking to yourself, and when the field crew from the laughing academy comes upon you, you can always say you're just using your wireless phone.

Ray Ratto is a columnist with the San Francisco Chronicle and a regular contributor to ESPN.com

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