Time for all involved to stop playing games

Originally Published: December 14, 2004
By Scott Burnside | Special to ESPN.com

TORONTO -- As it turns out, the jack-in-the-box analogy was perfect, although probably not in the way NHL commissioner Gary Bettman had intended.

Bettman followed the predictable path of rejecting the players' association's proposal of last week and followed it with an equally predictable counterproposal that included a salary cap, which was predictably rejected by the players' association. His thinking: The players' solution to the 3-month-old lockout was like the child's toy.

"You put the head in, you put the lid down, you get things put away and you crank it twice and it pops back up," Bettman said. "We can't live with a system like that."

In short, the salary rollbacks and other concessions the players insisted would net the owners $1 billion in short- and long-term savings on player salaries were bound to bounce back to current levels and beyond, perhaps within the next two to three years.

But the reality of that image is that it's Bettman's general managers and owners who are the jacks in question, springing up with wild contracts in hand every turn or so. And no matter how hard Bettman tries to jam those owners back into their salary box, they continue to jump out. And so it is that Bettman finds it more palatable to continue his tireless efforts to force the players into a salary cap than to try and continue his ill-fated, in some ways comical, efforts to keep his own constituents under control.

And that is why the NHL's slap-in-the-face proposal of Tuesday, one that accepts the players' 24 percent-across-the-board rollback on existing salaries, and then demands a per-team salary range between $34.6 million and $38.6 million, edges the league and the game ever closer to the cliff's edge. With neither side planning to meet again or attempt to make another offer in the immediate future, the edge of that cliff is more clearly visible than ever before. The question is, how far off in the distance is it?

"There's not much optimism for a season starting anytime soon. We don't have any plans," said Colorado defenseman Bob Boughner, a member of the NHLPA's bargaining committee. "We put forth our best offer last week and definitely don't have any plans. They didn't give us any reason to really go back to the table and draw up anything new."

Here's the maddening part: These sides are, on some levels, not so far apart. Indeed, in real dollars, perilously close to striking a deal. So close that if this season goes for naught and, by extension, the start of next season and beyond, history will judge this to be the most absurd labor dispute of all time. You were how close and couldn't get it right?

The NHL's counteroffer did have a slight concession in terms of the percentage that player salaries would count against revenues, from 53.2 to 54 percent, or $17 million in salary given 2003-04 payrolls. Player salaries currently make up about 75 percent of revenues.

The players' proposal of the rollback plus reductions to entry level contracts, modifications to the arbitration process and a luxury tax would take player salaries to 56 percent of revenues.

"We should be able to reach an agreement because after all, this should be about money," Bettman said. "So if we cannot reach an agreement with such a modest gap to bridge it must be because the union does not believe its proposed system will actually reduce costs to the 56.6 percent level and keep them there.

"The message that I tried to convey today by moving upwards on the percentage is you can't compromise knowing what your costs will be, but you can compromise what those costs will be. Collective bargaining is about dollars and sense. When ideology is brought to bear you wind up with a situation like this."

There's the rub.

It's not about dollars and cents. Never has been, really. Even before the CBA expired in September, the market had started to correct itself with teams pulling back from the insanity of four-year, $20 million contracts for marginal players like Martin Lapointe or similarly ludicrous deals signed by Bobby Holik and Alexei Yashin.

Although the last CBA saw salaries rise an average of 12 percent per year over a decade, the last five years actually saw increases of 5.2, 5.8, 14.4, 9, and 2.2 percent, or an average of 7 percent in that time.

So, no, it's not about the dollars, it's about ideology or, more specifically, abdication of responsibility from a group of owners that doesn't trust each other enough to operate in a luxury tax system or offer self-serving contracts that ultimately contribute to the destruction of the league.

"Do they want a foolproof, your words, 'idiot-proof', type system? I think everybody here understands what they're asking for," NHLPA executive director Bob Goodenow said.

"That's not our responsibility. It's their responsibility and as much as [salaries] could go up they could go down," added Dallas Stars forward Bill Guerin, another member of the bargaining committee. "We don't have any control over that. How well do they manage their specific team? It all depends on how you manage your team."

One league official is reported to have called Monday the most important day in NHL history. Bettman could have emerged from Tuesday's meeting and canceled the season, an outcome that would have been possible given the union's rejection of the owners' offer. The fact he did not means the season and the league has a pulse, however weak.

Both sides have taken steps toward a compromise -- the players' step a stride, the owners' step a shuffle.

What remains between them, a seemingly immovable object, is this notion of who is responsible for the future of the game. Perhaps the next step toward putting aside children's games is the public acknowledgement that this is the owners' mess and that it is up to the players to clean it up.

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

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