Union disputes claim, no progress made

Updated: August 27, 2004, 2:50 AM ET
By Scott Burnside | Special to ESPN.com

It has long been the National Hockey League Players' Association position that it's the league's owners that are driving the lockout bus, that commissioner Gary Bettman has staked his reputation and indeed his legacy on his ability to deliver a salary cap to his owners and that the game will be sacrificed indefinitely to that end.

The rhetoric tables were turned dramatically after Thursday's four-hour bargaining session in Ottawa when it was NHL executive vice-president and chief legal officer Bill Daly who described the union's current bargaining strategy as a "charade" and accused the players of lusting for a lockout.

"Frustrating, discouraging, largely a waste of time," Daly told ESPN.com when asked to characterize the nine hours of meetings Wednesday and Thursday.

"It's become very clear to me that we're not involved in a negotiation," Daly said, insisting the union was attempting to "stall" the process until there was no option but a lockout.

"They have obviously convinced themselves that they need to be in a work stoppage situation where games are being missed to see where they are," Daly said.

If that's their gambit, Daly said, "they're making a bad bet," given the resolve and solidarity amongst the league's 30 owners.

NHLPA senior director Ted Saskin, who later said the two days of discussions featured "healthy dialogue," seemed taken aback by Daly's characterization.

"That's the most ludicrous position," Saskin said. "Maybe they're just too far down the road in their lockout agenda."

The current deal ended a lockout nine years ago, and the agreement has been extended twice.

That previous dispute lasted 103 days and cut the 1994-95 season nearly in half. Owners have been preparing for another potential lockout for the last several years, and have built up a $300 million war chest.

One wonders if the two sides wouldn't be better off not commenting at all on the negotiations given the contradictory assessments that have invariably been the result of the handful of sessions scheduled since the end of the Stanley Cup playoffs in early June.

But if this is about optics, about perception and positioning, and really what other barometer is there to measure what is essentially a dead heat on a merry-go-round (with apologies to James Coburn and the rest of the cast of the Hollywood movie), then it's the owners who continue to enjoy a favorable spotlight.

A recent national poll in Canada found that some 56 percent of Canadians felt that the players had to be more flexible in their demands if a lockout is to be avoided and 77 percent feel strongly or somewhat strongly that the league needs a hard salary cap.

This week, for two straight days in Ottawa, the NHLPA delayed the start of negotiations so they could meet with teams involved in the World Cup of Hockey (in this case Canada and the United States) to reinforce to the players that they will likely miss an entire season of NHL hockey.

"It's been a consistent message to the players," said Saskin who pointed out that NHL owners began preparing in the late 1990s for what now appears to a certain lockout this fall.

"It's only prudent for the players to be prepared for the worst," Saskin said.

But why take time away from meetings aimed at finding a solution to tell your players you think the meetings are pointless?

The past three sessions totaling some 14 hours of meeting time, have been spent following a union-driven agenda examining the operations of each of the 30 NHL teams.

Trying to assess what works and what doesn't in the hopes of finding some common ground, some room to reach a common goal and perhaps a solution to the problems, Saskin explained.

Yet Daly said this is soil that should have been tilled months ago (the two sides didn't complete the league-wide assessment Thursday) and that the sidestep process is more about foot-dragging than finding solutions.

Further, the team-by-team discussion has yielded nothing in the way of a new proposal from the union.

One may be forthcoming but there is little optimism it will yield a breakthrough.

"I doubt if it'll be a meaningful proposal," Daly said. "It'll be a grandstanding proposal near the end of the process."

If the union hopes to prove Daly wrong, and with the end of the CBA now 20 days away, it behooves them to either schedule more meetings (the next two are set for Aug. 31 and Sept. 1) or come armed with a new proposal of some kind to drive the process forward.

Thursday's contradictory rhetoric reinforces just how wide is the gap that separates the two sides. Start with chasm and just keep going.

Last October the NHLPA offered a series of changes to the current CBA including a 5 percent across-the-board salary rollback and a luxury tax model.

"We've made six proposals to them which they rejected after asking questions for almost six hours," Daly told The Associated Press.

"Each of which would've solved our problems, maintained an average player's salary of $1.3 million, guaranteed the players more than 50 percent of our revenues and we still would've seen multimillion dollar contracts in the sport."

But a $1.3 million average salary is about a 27 percent drop from the current average salary of slightly less than $1.8 million.

Under that scenario, players' salaries would represent more than 50 percent of league revenues, down from the 75 percent owners say is crippling the NHL.

"Union leadership spent only six hours going through the six proposals with us, then concluded that each was a "cap" and rejected all six out of hand," Daly said. "The fact that only one of the six proposals actually contemplated a salary cap exposes the union for its true motivation -- to do everything necessary to precipitate a fight in an attempt to preserve the status quo."

"They're willing to term anything a salary cap that isn't the status quo," Daly said.

Saskin reminded reporters Thursday that NHL players aren't demanding a free market system, in fact they operate under one of the most restrictive leagues in professional sports, unable to exercise unrestricted free agency until they're 31 years old.

But even under those restrictions the average player's salaries have jumped more than 300 percent during the life of the current CBA.

Whether those riches have been bestowed by owners who cannot control themselves or not (they have), taking a 27 percent hit in salaries, doesn't seem like such a hardship, at least not to a public that can't understand why the game appears to be but a pawn in a game of egos.

Information from The Associated Press was used in this report.

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