Bettman, owners look ready for long sit-in

Updated: September 21, 2004, 12:36 PM ET
By Scott Burnside | Special to ESPN.com

And so it begins.

Against a background chorus of inflammatory rhetoric and name-calling, the National Hockey League closed its doors to its players Wednesday -- setting in motion a labor stoppage that almost certainly will precipitate landmark changes to the game.

If fans were expecting that possibly saving at least half a season would put pressure on players and owners to hunker down and negotiate a settlement by the end of January, if not sooner, think again.

"We are not focused on a timetable," Commisioner Gary Bettman said after the NHL's board of governors voted unanimously to lock out players, stopping play for the first time in almost a decade. "There isn't a time pressure on getting a deal done. The deal gets done; that's the pressure," he said.

Bettman told owners they could release their buildings for other events for the next 30 days but that is just the beginning. Talks aren't scheduled, but there is no reason to talk until one side moves off what amounts to separate philosophical mountaintops.

The owners, citing more than $1.8 billion in losses over the life of the collective bargaining agreement, say they must have a system that ties player salaries to revenues. Player costs currently eat up 75 percent of revenues; the league would like to see that figure lowered to about 50 percent, which would still leave the players with an average salary of $1.3 million, down from the current $1.8 million average, Bettman said.

"I don't blame the players one bit. The players got paid a lot of money. And that was the deal we made," Bettman said. "We do not begrudge the players it one bit. But that doesn't mean we have to continue to do it. We've had enough of this agreement."

Although insisting on cost certainty, Bettman said the league would entertain a range of scenarios -- which would allow players to tap into league revenues like profits from the future sales of franchises -- when and if the league's economics improved.

The players insist they are the ones who have shown willingness to compromise, moving off their preference to maintain the status quo by offering a series of give-backs including a 5 percent rollback on salaries, alterations to entry-level salaries, revenue sharing and a luxury tax proposal that would have meant $100 million in savings for owners.

"We made a proposal well over a year ago that was a huge step in terms of reaching out to them," NHLPA executive director Bob Goodenow said.

Bettman called the proposal meaningless because there were no guarantees that it would provide the drag on salaries the league claims to need.

Goodenow called Bettman "disingenuous" and suggested he's a fibber.

"Gary says a lot of things that frankly I take with a grain salt," Goodenow said.

Bettman asserted it was the players who really wanted the lockout.

"To use a hockey term, they're instigating a fight," Bettman said.

"That is absolutely stupid and ridiculous to characterize it that way," Goodenow said.

And on it went.

As theater goes, it wasn't bad. More Theatre of the Absurd than Broadway, but that's because the storylines are now so numbingly predictable. Think Waiting For Godot with the fans as the principals waiting for an agreement that is well beyond the horizon.

What is different today is the rhetoric is accompanied by real and undeniable pressure.

It's started off slight, impossible to measure tomorrow or the next day, but it exists and will grow. This isn't merely the threat of a lockout anymore; the doors are now locked. Players whose average salary almost tripled during the last agreement will not be paid. Owners will not make money.

Bettman said 20 of the 30 teams are losing money and those teams will be further ahead with their buildings darkened than if the season had gone forward under the old agreement.

Maybe. Maybe not.

But the pressure exerts itself both ways in this fight. The longer the game is silent, the longer owners have no chance to make money -- regardless of what system is in place.

The greater conceit from both sides is that the fans will still be around when the two sides finally emerge from their fallout shelters.

Bettman insisted that the game will be stronger for this, that all 30 teams will not only survive but also thrive under a new agreement.

"We will have a future and a bright future, and we will grow this game," Bettman said.

But these are things Bettman cannot know.

He cannot guarantee whether fans in Raleigh or Nashville or Atlanta will care enough to support a team in two years whether there's a salary cap or not.

No one can.

"What this game may look like in four months it's tough to judge, it's tough to say. Certainly it's a bit of an unknown," admitted NHLPA president Trevor Linden of the Vancouver Canucks.

In theory, training camps would have started for many teams Thursday. Instead, NHL teams scrambled to reassign eligible players to their American Hockey League franchises. Players with junior eligibility, many of whom were skating at NHL-sanctioned prospect camps across North America a few days ago, will return to those clubs.

More than 100 league staffers have been or will be laid off and dozens more workers with the league's 30 franchises face similar uncertainty. Some teams have laid off staff already; others are waiting to see how long the lockout lasts before cutting staff.

The NHLPA's members, used to charter flights and expensive hotels, will ride buses playing in four-on-four leagues or in charity exhibitions.

Some will ply their trade in Europe.

Others will take classes or walk their children to school.

The hockey canvas is now blank.

What image will appear there and when, no one knows.

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

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