Sides talking but not to each other

Updated: October 13, 2004, 5:18 PM ET
By Scott Burnside | Special to ESPN.com

The National Hockey League's top negotiator, Bill Daly, says that by not talking to the National Hockey League Players' Association, the league is actually moving the process forward.

Maybe that's why it feels as though this lockout has been going on for years, decades even, as opposed to simply moving in on the one-month mark.

"We feel like we've been the proactive party in this relationship for quite some time now," Daly said. "Now we feel it's the union's turn to take a hard look at where they are."

Daly's counterpart with the National Hockey League Players' Association, Ted Saskin, predictably disagreed with the characterization but did acknowledge, "it's not like were making much progress (when the two sides were talking) either."

Wednesday night, the first regular season NHL games will officially be gobbled up by the lockout and there are no plans for the two sides to meet anytime soon. Players and owners have had no contact, not even casual e-mail or telephone contact regarding negotiations, since the lockout began on Sept. 16.

Daly did end up playing golf with some players and alumni at a charity event outside New York last week. Though no one yelled "no cap" in the middle of Daly's backswing, he said he didn't play well.

"It was a really bad golf game on my part," Daly said.

Once again illustrating the twin solitudes of the labor impasse, Daly and Saskin took to the Canadian airwaves to discuss their wildly divergent views of the NHL's future. The two were interviewed -- separately mind you -- on TSN's "Hot Seat" on Tuesday night. Early in the lockout, NHL commissioner Gary Bettman and NHLPA executive director Bob Goodenow engaged in a similar rhetoric-fest on the CBC, doing separate interviews on the network's national nightly newscast. The process makes the current U.S. presidential debates look positively cozy.

Brian Burke, the former general manager of the Vancouver Canucks and one-time NHL executive, received a lot of media play, at least in Canada, with an innovative proposal for a settlement that included a strong luxury tax component with penalties beginning at the $38 million level and stiff economic repercussions for repeat offenders. Analysts at TSN came up with their own proposal based on consultation with owners, GMs, coaches, executives, agents and players.

All of which means little, if not nothing, to the owners and the players who have examined the models and permutations of various proposals six ways to Sunday.

There are only two solutions on the table, and as far as each side is concerned the other's might as well come with a shot of hemlock.

Common sense suggests that a punishing luxury tax, plus tweaking of entry level contracts and a refinement of the arbitration process, will drive down salaries which the NHL claims is eating up 75 percent of revenues.

But this is the owners' league. They drove the salaries up and now they will accept only a system that guarantees they'll go down, ergo, a salary cap. A luxury tax does not offer that economic guarantee, Daly said. Not with "30 independent actors" in the form of NHL owners.

Translation: Owners cannot trust themselves to behave rationally, even if it means paying millions of dollars in overages under a luxury tax system, money that could be ploughed back to small-market teams.

Bettman has promised to deliver a salary cap system, even though it runs the risk of strip-mining marquee franchises like Detroit, Colorado, Toronto and Philadelphia, teams which boast among the strongest fan support in the league, teams which have vigorously pursued championships by signing top-dollar free agents and signing top players to lucrative long-term deals.

"Certainly it does that," Saskin said. "You only have to look at the San Francisco 49ers in football to look at what a cap does to a dynasty situation."

Daly disputes that assertion.

"Those clubs all understand that their individual value is dependent at least in part on the value of the league as a whole," Daly said. "I don't think hamstringing franchises is a concern for us."

Many wonder aloud about bringing in a third-party mediator to try and forge a settlement. As a matter of course the league, as an employer that has locked out some 700 employees in two countries, has been in contact with labor officials in the respective Canadian provinces and the U.S. But no one is in a position to offer third-party mediation because no one knows the issues as well as the men who sit at the negotiating table, Daly said.

"We should be making our own solutions," he said.

And so the game waits, each side waving its respective flag from its own moral high ground.

The two sides may come together again sometime in December, when the need to salvage the current season crops up in earnest. The 103-day lockout of 1994-95 ended shortly before what was considered the drop-dead date for hosting a 48-game season and playoffs.

Daly insists the owners have not discussed such a date, and that such a date does not exist at this moment. But Daly does concede that as time passes there will be a point when the league would likely announce that too much time has passed to hold a meaningful season and officially cancel the season. Presumably that arbitrary line in the sand will act as a catalyst for the two sides to determine whether enough blood has been spilled to return to the bargaining table.

"I don't mean to sound blasÚ about it, but the owners are the ones who chose to start a lockout," Saskin said. "They're the ones right now who control the timetable."

It is a timetable that appears to be driven not by issues and negotiations but by a much more deadly end-game: which side buckles.

One popular theory has the players revolting after they start to miss out on their bi-weekly $140,000 pay checks. That presupposes that players will wake up next week, stand at their empty mailboxes scratching their heads and immediately demand to be allowed back into NHL rinks.

Almost 200 players are currently playing in Europe. Many of them are with teams at or near their hometowns, so their motivation to return to the NHL, while high, isn't overwhelming.

Another theory suggests veterans like Steve Yzerman, Chris Chelios, Dave Andreychuk and others whose advanced age would make it difficult to sit out a season and then return to active play will push for an early settlement. Those players, even ones like Jeremy Roenick who candidly suggested during the World Cup of Hockey that maybe a salary cap might not be a terrible thing, are all too mindful of the chaotic days of the players' association under Alan Eagleson. If it's one quality to which hockey players hold fast it's loyalty and teamwork, and they understand the gains they have made on Goodenow's watch.

As for the owners, one might imagine the prospect of saving at least half a season (during which only half of players' salaries would be paid) and a lucrative playoff schedule, during which players are not paid, would be extremely attractive. The lure was so great in 1994-95 that owners agreed to a deal that ultimately cost them millions in escalating salaries.

History is unlikely to repeat itself, not with a $300 million war chest collected by owners to wait out the players.

Still, if the owners require a salary cap to save themselves from themselves, and these same owners require the threat of league-imposed fines to keep them from speaking out of turn on this labor situation, perhaps it's not so far-fetched to suggest this diverse group might also be the first to soften their demands before a season is lost for the first time since 1919.

Time, and there seems to be plenty available, will tell.

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

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