Bettman sidesteps search for common ground

Updated: February 9, 2005, 10:47 PM ET
By Scott Burnside | Special to ESPN.com

So let's get this straight.

NHL commissioner Gary Bettman spends two months sitting on the league's front porch fiddling away while the 2004-05 season burns.

Then he gets up Wednesday morning and goes to Toronto, where he tells the players' association that, in the spirit of cooperation and consideration for all that is good about the game, the league is willing to give the players' Dec. 9 proposal a test run. Bring it on, Bettman says. Let's play hockey.

But (and you knew this was coming, didn't you?) this test run comes with four incendiary devices attached to hair-trigger wires. The first time any one of the devices goes off, and -- Poof! -- the players' proposal is toast and the league's hard cap proposal of a week ago takes its place.

And just to add some drama to the proceedings, just as he's walking out the door, Bettman tosses a bouquet of roses on the table and says, by the way, if we're not putting the finishing touches on a new collective bargaining agreement by this weekend, the season is done. Game over.

That's negotiating? That's a compromise?

Well, on the bright side, for those who were clamoring for a drop-dead date, it's here.

On the not-so-bright side, it looks like drop dead accurately reflects where these talks and this season are going to do.

"It is clear to me that if we're not working on a written document memorializing our agreement this weekend, I don't see how we can play any semblance of the season," Bettman told reporters Wednesday evening.

Memorializing. What an interesting term. He might well have called it eulogizing.

You have to hand it to Bettman, though. There is a perverse brilliance to Wednesday's proposal, which was proffered to the union at a secret meeting at the NHLPA's Toronto offices.

In effect, he put NHLPA executive director Bob Goodenow and his lieutenant, Ted Saskin, in the position of having to reject their own proposal -- which is exaclty what they did after reading the fine print.

What better legal ammunition to unload in front of the National Labor Relations Board later in order to declare an impasse and introduce replacement players? Look your honor, Bettman can say, we even offered to implement their own proposal and they wouldn't go for it. Can you blame us for sticking to our guns on the salary cap? Now can we go ahead and let Hnat Domenichelli play dress-up with Joe Sakic's jersey?

Why wouldn't the players go for such a deal? Why not put their deal, with its luxury tax and reconfigured salary arbitration system and restrictive entry level salary grid and 24-percent salary rollback, to the test?

Because even though it might take some time, the NHL's latest offer is a leg-hold trap that will inevitably tie the players to the type of hard salary cap they refuse to accept. It's a trick, subterfuge, a clever ruse, an end-around given that at least one of the triggers will be set off at the drop of the first puck.

Any time player compensation exceeds 55 percent of league-wide revenues, any time the gap between the average payrolls of the top three clubs and the bottom three clubs exceeds 33 percent, any time any three clubs pay out more than $42 million each in player compensation or any time the league-wide average team payroll exceeds $36.5 million, the players' plan is kaput and the league gets its way.

If those numbers look familiar it's because they are. It is basically the same deal the league has insisted upon from the beginning, but with some smoke and mirrors installed so it looks like the players don't even trust their own proposal to work.

Bettman, disingenuous to the end, said he'd already received a call from one owner who called the offer "generous" and may have been chiding Bettman for freelancing.

Maybe it was Carolina owner Peter Karmanos, whose idea of the right deal seems to involve the players showing up at the rink in leg irons and carrying picks and shovels.

And why did Bettman wait two months before suggesting the players' Dec. 9 proposal was a foundation from which to work? Apparently, because the players quickly rejected the offer on Wednesday they would have rejected it two months ago, the waiting didn't matter. Huh?

The reality is that by delivering on the eve of the long-awaited drop-dead date (give or take the start or end of the weekend), Bettman leaves the players little time to come up with an alternative plan or a rebuttal. It would seem that has been the plan all along.

"The trigger points are just really reflections of their salary-cap proposals," Goodenow told reporters Wednesday night. "I don't know that a flip-flop arrangement really makes sense. It's not about a better deal being out there, it's about finding a fair deal."

It is, of course, the owners who have driven the league to this point. And if the players accepted this deal, who's to say the owners wouldn't just as surely drive it right off the same cliff at their first opportunity?

Bettman scoffed at the notion that the owners would do so deliberately.

"Why would you over-spend to get another system? If the system's working, great," Bettman said. "If it's working, why would anyone complain about it?"

It's not that they'd do it on purpose. The owners didn't drive average salaries up to $1.8 million because they set out to. They did it because they can't help themselves.

In that way, this deal is no different than any of the others offered up by Bettman. It has an idiot-proof salary cap, this time buried under a lot of dressing.

In the end Wednesday hockey fans got a little bit of what they craved.

A line in the sand.

An end point.

A moment of truth.

A deadline.

What they didn't get was a real shot at a solution.

The most telling part of Bettman's address was his rationalization for a proposal that is essentially two different philosophies jammed uncomfortably into the same collective bargaining agreement, as opposed to an actual negotiated settlement.

"We didn't seem to be able to come up with a middle or common ground," Bettman said.

That's because he never looked.

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

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