Agreement to meet again sign of movement

For the second straight time, the meeting of National Hockey League and the National Hockey Players' Association was characterized as having accomplished little or nothing. But something is happening.

Updated: August 5, 2004, 12:29 AM ET
By Scott Burnside | Special to ESPN.com

How many teenagers throughout the history of time have disappeared for four hours and, when pressed by parents, insisted they'd done nothing.

What did you do for four hours?

Nothing.

Not to suggest the National Hockey League and the NHL Players' Association are acting like teenagers, and really we're not, but it is nonetheless curious that Wednesday, for the second time in two weeks, the participants in what looms as a labor endgame for the league went at it behind closed doors for four hours.

For the second straight time, the session was characterized as having accomplished little or nothing.

What did you do for four hours?

Nothing.

"I can't say that we made any substantive progress," the NHL's executive vice president and chief legal officer Bill Daly told ESPN.com shortly after the session at the players' association offices in Toronto ended.

"They haven't been willing to engage in any compromise solutions," senior players' association direction Ted Saskin offered.

But something is happening.

Twice in a row the two sides have not only met for four hours, they have worked through lunch.

That's not insignificant.

And twice in a row they have ended their meetings not with a Philadelphia Flyers-like donnybrook or a symbolic middle-finger salute and a promise to send a Christmas card, but an agreement to meet again.

And so a third session in less than a month will be held Aug. 17 in New York, just a hair under a month from the end of the current collective bargaining agreement's midnight Sept. 15 expiration.

The post-meeting rhetoric Wednesday suggests the money on airfare and taxis would be better spent on World Hockey Association season tickets and a new putter, but often the rhetoric is as much a reflex action as it is a reflection of what is really being said, considered or proposed.

"Gary Bettman's objective from the beginning was to bring this to a lockout in order to put economic pressure on the players," Saskin said in a conference call after the meeting.

Neither side wants to admit progress.

But neither side wants to stop meeting.

So be it.

Surely that is progress of sorts even if no one wants to identify it as such. The two sides remain on opposite sides of the ideological fence publicly and privately.

The league, which insists 75 percent of revenues in 2002-03 went to players' salaries, wants a salary cap of some kind. The players want a free-market system that closely resembles the current system.

But beyond the differences there are clearly avenues of discussion being explored.

"They asked a lot of questions and we answered a lot of questions," Daly said. Specifically, the players' association asked a lot of questions about three of the six proposals first delivered to the table by the NHL at the July 21 meeting in New York.

A players' association source has described the initial proposals as being insignificant, a series of short descriptions taking up less than five pages in total. And Saskin said all six rely on a salary cap of some form, which makes them nonstarters.

But Saskin acknowledged there were elements of those proposals that might be applicable in another framework.

Daly told ESPN.com that the union asked for more extensive modeling on one of the proposals, a "player partnership payroll plan" or (P-4), that would see a form of salary cap supplemented by "lucrative bonuses for team playoff performance."

Saskin said the bonus element might be something that could be discussed in a different context. The other systems, described by Daly in a recent online chat with fans, included:

  • A centralized negotiating system "where the league would negotiate individual player contracts, either with players and their agents or with the union directly."

    Saskin said there seemed to be confusion about whether individual teams would negotiate under a central plan or whether there would be a league negotiator who would handle all negotiations.

  • A payroll range system "in which teams could spend within a negotiated range of payrolls."

    Under that system, the players would be guaranteed a percentage of the league's gross revenues, Daly told ESPN.com.

  • A performance-based salary system, "in which a player's individual compensation would be based, in part, on negotiated objective criteria and, in part, on individual and team performance."

  • A salary slotting system, in which each team would be assigned a series of "salary slots" at various levels, "each of which would be allocated among each team's players pursuant to individual player-team negotiation."

    The sixth proposal was a straight hard salary cap above which teams could not spend. It's believed such a cap would be in the neighborhood of $35 million. Daly said he didn't think it was appropriate to go into significant detail on the nuts and bolts of each proposal.

    But he did suggest that if these options weren't palatable to the union then perhaps it was the union's turn to ante up.

    "We haven't really heard from them in nine months what they think might work. Maybe it's time to hear from them."

    Which opens the door for a return or reworking of last fall's union proposal for salary rollbacks and a luxury tax.

    At the time, the union offered a one-time five percent rollback in salaries which would have saved the league an estimated $65 million, a return of entry level bonus and salary restrictions to 1994 levels that would have saved owners another $50-60 million and a luxury tax that would have meant a $200 million savings at the time.

    The league's response was a one-page document outlining plans for a hard cap, Saskin said.

    Now?

    Since that time, the market has corrected itself and those same numbers, the same concessions, might not be available, Saskin warned.

    Okay, so put it on the table.

    Daly said he thinks its healthy to continue to meet if only so the two sides can continue to understand what the other is thinking, what they hope to achieve. Saskin echoed those sentiments, saying they'll continue to ask questions about the league's proposals to see what elements might fit somewhere else.

    In fact, both men have taken turns referring to the fact that "there is more than one way to skin this cat" after each of the last two meetings.

    Perhaps in the end the creative skinning of this cat will be done four hours at a time.

    Scott Burnside is a freelance writer based in Atlanta and is a frequent contributor to ESPN.com.

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