Resolution '95 didn't include caving

Originally Published: January 23, 2005
By Scott Burnside | Special to ESPN.com

More than a decade later it still seems innocuous.

National Hockey League Players' Association president Mike Gartner, frustrated at the lack of progress during the 1994-95 lockout, called up his boss, then-Toronto Maple Leafs president and general manager Cliff Fletcher, and asked if they could chat. That's all, just chat.

"Obviously, I invited him over to my house. I always had good relationships with all my players," Fletcher recalled last week. "And we had a very good discussion."

That meeting prompted several days of ownership meetings in Detroit, then a marathon bargaining session between NHL commissioner Gary Bettman and NHLPA executive director Bob Goodenow. The two hammered out an 11th-hour deal that ended what was, up to that point, the longest work stoppage in league history and saved the balance of the 1994-95 season.

"It was the first small step in a lengthy negotiation. But it was the first step," said Fletcher, a member of the league's bargaining team during the 103-day lockout.

This time, it was Trevor Linden who picked up the phone. After discussing the initiative with Goodenow and senior director Ted Saskin, the NHLPA president requested a meeting with Calgary Flames co-owner Harley Hotchkiss, president of the NHL's board of governors.

Their informal five-hour meeting Wednesday in a Chicago airport lounge sparked a 4-hour session in Toronto on Thursday. Bill Daly, the NHL's executive vice president and chief legal officer called the meetings the "most dynamic" yet between the two sides.

However, Gartner, currently the director of business relations for the players' association, pointed out significant differences that make it difficult to be optimistic the current season can be saved. That revelation came even before Linden's pronouncement that the league refuses to budge from its hard-cap stance.

A decade ago, the two sides met on and off throughout the process. Heated discussions were followed by cooling-off periods. But when the two sides got together they talked about specific issues. "This time around, that hasn't been there," Gartner said.

Indeed. Last week's sessions were the first back-to-back meetings since late August and only the third and fourth meetings since the lockout was announced on Sept. 15. Both sides acknowledge there has been little in the way of traditional negotiating.

But even back in 1994-95, there was a sense the season would be canceled because so little progress had been made. But when the two sides got together in earnest in early January 2005, differences that seemed insurmountable weren't so vast, Gartner said.

The two sides settled on January 11, two days before a league-imposed drop-dead for the season.

Fletcher, too, sees more differences than similarities between the two disputes.

"In 1994 we were dealing with systemic issues," like salary arbitration and entry-level salaries, Fletcher said. "Now you're dealing with the overall economic state of the game. Today it's much more critical, in my estimation."

Gartner is concerned about a rush to declare a winner or loser in this standoff. Team owners proclaimed victory in 1995. Ten years later, the players have come out on top.

"History has a way of reinventing itself. Now I read that it was the owners who 'caved' back in 1995. That's just not an accurate depiction of what happened," Gartner said. "It shouldn't be about 'caving.' That's a terrible way of looking at this negotiation. It's unfortunate because it can act as an impediment sometimes."

The differences between the NHL and the players' association may be more deep-seated now than they were 10 years ago, but Gartner said there is still something to be learned.

"I think that the obvious lesson is that we got it done," he said. "I think that was a good thing."

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

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