Time for players to talk

Originally Published: January 6, 2005
By Scott Burnside | Special to ESPN.com

Here in the twilight of this misbegotten NHL season, where the truth is a whisper and the future a tangle of brambles, it is time for someone to step forward and do more than simply say they love the game.

It is time someone proves such affection with action, even if it means doing something they said they'd never do.

It's time for the players to save the game.

Forging a new Collective Bargaining Agreement now will give the players their last, best shot at ensuring a lucrative financial future. They likely could negotiate a higher salary cap and build in mechanisms to reap rewards in hand with the owners, should the health of the league improve. Players could insist on a sliding scale whereby if league revenues hit $2.5 billion, the players get a 57 percent share; if revenues increase to $3 billion, the players' take could grow to 60 percent, and so on, much like the deal their NBA brethren struck. The players also could have a hand in administering a revenue-sharing system that was absent from the owners' last proposal.

A top league official told ESPN.com there is wiggle room on many of financial issues -- if they are discussed in time.

Ah, yes, time.

Four months ago, when the NHL was preparing to lock out its players, it was assumed that if the lockout lasted into the new year without a new collective bargaining agreement in the works, the season would be lost.

Four months later, here we are -- no agreement in sight, yet no end to the season clearly in view.

If you're an optimist and believe that neither side in this ridiculous dispute would be so pigheaded as to drive the jalopy that the NHL has become over the proverbial cliff, then the fact the season hasn't been canceled yet means there is more than a glimmer of hope it can be salvaged.

If you're a pessimist and see two sides hell-bent on destroying a game rather than giving in on matters of principle, then the lack of discussion since mid-December is further proof the season is dead.

No one knows which is closer to the truth -- not the owners, not the players -- which might be the scariest part. Neither side is really sure of just how far the other will go before cutting off the proceedings.

Since the two sides swapped proposals, and subsequent rejections, in mid-December, the only concrete news has been the announcement of a Jan. 14 board of governors meeting and its cancellation on Thursday.

In the void created by a lack of negotiation, formal or otherwise (sources with both the league and union insist there have been no back-room discussions), rumors abound regarding the mindset of both sides.

The players are rumored to be working on a new proposal, which the players' association denies, although they in turn say the owners are working on a new offer, which the league denies.

There is a persistent rumor that a rift exists among the 700-or-so players locked out since Sept. 16, and some vocal, highly paid players are pushing for a vote on accepting a salary cap, as well as the union's direction. The players' association, naturally, has hotly denied this. Rank and file players and agents contacted by ESPN.com also insist there remains solidarity throughout the membership.

A parallel rumor suggests the owners' solidarity is wobbling, with some wanting to take a harder look at the players' last proposal, which included a 24-precent rollback on salaries, a restructured salary arbitration and entry-level salary systems, plus a luxury-tax grid. For the record, the league denies this, too, as do general managers who spoke on the condition of anonymity. Top-level agents insist they have no indication of any fracture at the ownership level.

At the recently completed World Junior Championship in Grand Forks, N.D., the lockout dominated discussion at the rink, the coffee shops and the postgame gatherings. Agents, general managers, scouts, coaches, even the odd player, weighed in. While everyone had a different agenda, there was almost universal agreement that if the season is lost, all bets are off as to what the league's future holds. However, the terms "carcass" and "wasteland" came up often.

Wayne Gretzky, the best player in NHL history and a part owner of the Phoenix Coyotes, alluded to as much during a press conference at the WJC when he warned the lockout could last a year or more if a settlement isn't reached soon. Gretzky reiterated the owners' mantra that the Coyotes are losing less money not playing than they did playing an entire season under the old system. But he also acknowledged the lockout has affected the team's credibility and has whittled away at its fan base and sponsorship support.

Given the diametrically opposing viewpoints, which group is most likely to do what's best for the game?

Owners, for the most part, have little deep-rooted connection to the game. Most of them made their money elsewhere and, should the league cease to exist, would continue to make millions doing something else. They are almost entirely responsible for their economic predicament and are determined to get out of it. Several high-profile decision makers on both sides of the issue have said the owners' goal isn't just to forge a new system, it's also to break the union and bring down NHLPA executive director Bob Goodenow, whom they almost universally abhor. However, one of those power brokers thinks otherwise, saying the owners simply "want what they want," a new system.

Which brings us back to the players.

Based on the elements of their last proposal, the players can no longer deny the league is in dire economic trouble. It's now time for them to make the ultimate "take one for the team" statement and agree to a salary cap.

During the last lockout a decade ago, they claimed they'd never accept a luxury tax. This time around, it's a major component of their proposals.

Another decade from now, if the game is thriving once again, no one will remember the players caved. In fact, they'll most likely be remembered for saving the game.

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

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