It's all up to Gary and Bob

With Thursday's meeting the last best hope to save hockey this season, the NHL appears to be making it easy for the players' association to turn them down.

Updated: February 2, 2005, 11:07 PM ET
By Scott Burnside | Special to ESPN.com

Want a clear understanding of just how bleak are the prospects of a resolution to the NHL lockout? It's now up to Gary Bettman and Bob Goodenow to save the day.

For most of the last month the respective leaders of the two sides in the longest labor dispute in NHL history were frozen out of the process because it was believed things might go more smoothly with the two acerbic personalities safely tucked away in their offices. Now, after the NHLPA quickly rejected the latest, perhaps last, league proposal presented Wednesday, NHLPA executive director Goodenow and NHL commissioner Bettman aren't just back in the loop but they must work together to defuse the labor time bomb they helped create before the season blows up in their collective faces.

"Obviously if we're going to break the current logjam we're going to have to brainstorm on some new directions," NHLPA senior director Ted Saskin said during a conference call hours after the union's rejection of the offer which was pretty much the same offer the union flat-out rejected last Thursday in New York.

"We need to discuss where we are in the process and how we might move it forward," Saskin said.

Brainstorming? Moving forward? Bob and Gary?

The one element of certainty about Thursday's meeting is that it marks the beginning of the end of this dispute. Whatever the outcome of Thursday's meeting will set the course.

Imagine every bad odd-couple, cop/partner movie ever made without any of the laughs and you'll have a sense of Thursday's meeting dynamics. Oil and water have a better chance of getting together than these two men do given their history and the shaky framework provided by this latest proposal.

Saskin had perhaps the best analogy of the situation. It's like someone tries to sell you a house in a swamp but offers to put in some nice curtains to obscure the view, he said.

"The salary cap is the swamp."

To be sure, there are some curtain-like elements to the NHL's proposal that might actually provide the framework for meaningful movement in this dispute.

There's a profit-sharing initiative that the NHL's top negotiator Bill Daly describes as the "cornerstone" of a long-term partnership between the players and owners. But the concept is so vague no one could say just how lucrative it might be or when there might actually be profits to share.

There's an option for a joint audit of team financial records with heavy penalties in the form of fines and forfeited draft books for non-compliance and a player/owner council to oversee improvements to the game and business matters.

There's the return of salary arbitration which the owners wanted to eliminate altogether although there is a clause in the new proposal that allows the owners to eliminate it whenever they want and replace it with unrestricted free agency at age 28. That's not a particularly attractive option for players given that the market would be flooded with players trying to sign on with teams who'll have less money to spend.

"Oh, let me sign up for that," one team player rep told ESPN.com sarcastically.

There's a payroll tax component which the players can invoke at their discretion. Of course given that it's a payroll tax within the salary restraints demanded by the league makes it of little use to players.

Which brings us to the salary cap, which is actually a cap within a cap -- or given Saskin's analogy, a swamp within a swamp?

Including player benefits, there is a minimum salary requirement of $32 million per team and a ceiling of $42.2 million. But team salaries cannot exceed 55 percent of league revenues, which means that given last year's $2.1 billion in revenue the maximum per team payroll would be $38.5 million. If revenue drops to, let's say $1.75 billion, the maximum per team salary would drop to $32 million. If revenues jumped to $3 billion, salaries would be capped at $42.2 million even though 55 percent of those revenues would mean a $55 million payroll.

The proposal also called for a three-year maximum on any contract length.

As for the 24 percent across the board rollback on existing contracts offered by the players in December, the owners did make a concession there. They agreed to keep the rollback but left it as an across the board rollback instead of restructuring it as they did in their Dec. 14 proposal.

"Why did the NHL even make this offer? The whole thing doesn't make any sense," another team rep told ESPN.com.

"I think almost every player in the association would turn this down. It's not something to make players look long and hard at," he added.

It's almost as though this offer is designed to ensure that players don't actually give it serious consideration, the player rep said.

"Just when it looks like we might possibly take a step forward they give us something that's three steps backward," he said. "They make it easy for us."

What remains confounding is what exactly might be discussed Thursday in New York and how it could possible end any other way than abruptly.

"I don't know what there is to talk about. It gets a little stranger every day," one of the player reps confided.

The one element of certainty about Thursday's meeting is that it marks the beginning of the end of this dispute. Whatever the outcome of Thursday's meeting will set the course.

If Goodenow and Bettman are able to find in the wreckage of rejected proposals and entrenched positions some kernel of common ground, the talks will move forward without a break.

"I would hope that as an outcome of tomorrow we will continue talks on a continual basis," Daly said. "I am concerned in any prolonged gap in the negotiations at this point. It's time that the parties need to be working on this and mutually problem-solve on a daily basis to try to get this resolved."

If, as logic and history suggest, the two men glare at each other and quickly depart, then the formal cancellation of the season won't be far behind.

At this stage, a resolution of any kind will be considered mercifully welcome.

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

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