Labor negotiations have been a farce

Updated: February 19, 2005, 12:08 AM ET
By Scott Burnside | Special to ESPN.com

After these labor negotiations, the NHL might as well stand for Never Has Logic.

One thing about the National Hockey League and its players holding negotiations, which are expected to save the 2004-05 season, three days after the season was formally canceled is that it won't hurt their credibility. They have none.

This is like the final scene from "Carrie" -- the soothing music, the nice girl putting the flowers on the season's gravesite and suddenly the bloody arm of Ted Saskin (or is it Bill Daly?) shooting up through the earth and stone. But instead of dragging the poor girl -- likely a Carolina Hurricanes fan -- into the darkness, the arm is holding a copy of the new 2004-05 schedule.

"I have to believe they have a fairly good fix on what's available and that is something on which they could make a deal," former Atlanta Thrashers president Stan Kasten told ESPN.com on Friday night.

Kasten, who still has close ties in the NHL ownership community, said after Wednesday's cancellation announcement that there was still time to put the egg back together.

It appears he may be right, although Kasten cautioned that owners will have little wiggle room off their final offer of $42.5 million.

Kasten said there were a number of owners angry that Bettman had upped the league's previous "final" offer of $40 million on Tuesday, and they were happy to have the season canceled instead of living under the $42.5 million cap.

In the wake of Wednesday's cancellation, both sides insisted their final offers were off the table -- including the union's 24 percent salary rollback and the salary cap and the league's offer to forgo a direct link between salaries and revenues.

Now that both sides are back at the table, everything is back in play including, apparently, Wayne Gretzky and Mario Lemieux.

The Canadian Press reported Friday night that the two greatest players of this generation -- who now have ownership ties to the Phoenix Coyotes and Pittsburgh Penguins, respectively -- joined the negotiating party.

A cynic -- and are there any other kind of hockey fans left after what they've been through in the past week? -- would ask where those guys have been. The two most powerful men in the game wait until the season is put in the trash can before speaking up? It's a head-shaker, all right.

What kind of deal may actually be produced is a minor mystery compared to how Saturday's improbable meeting came about.

According to an NHLPA press release issued Friday evening, the players were invited back to the table Thursday evening by the league and presumably after discussing the invitation agreed to meet in New York on Saturday.

The NHL, always on the cutting edge of public relations, refused to confirm anything.

Almost from the moment the season was canceled, there were rumors of parties on both sides unhappy that they came so close to saving the season but failed.

NHLPA president Trevor Linden told ESPN.com on Wednesday night that he'd spoken to a number of owners who felt the players had given enough to get a deal done, including introducing a salary cap proposal, something the union said it would never do.

Similarly, there were a number of stories written indicating players were divided over how the negotiations had gone down the stretch. Many were angered the players appeared to have caved on their long-standing opposition to a salary cap, while others felt that once that line had been crossed it made no sense not to do a deal at $42.5 million or close to it.

Regardless of who proffered the invitation to meet again, Kasten believes the union membership must have realized after Wednesday that at no point in the future were they going to get a deal as good as they could have had this week.

Coming back to the table "is really their only course of action," Kasten said.

And regardless of how it was accomplished, Saturday's meeting indicates there is trouble in the henhouse on both sides of this dispute.

It was clear that with both sides giving in on philosophical differences there was a deal to be made before Wednesday's arbitrary deadline. Yes the $6.5 million gap becomes a significant number when multiplied out over 30 teams over the life of the agreement. That's why they call it negotiation.

But instead of either making the deal that surely existed or canceling Bettman's Wednesday press conference until the two sides were sure they'd exhausted all options, the two sides walked away like children who couldn't decide how to share Mr. Truck at the sandbox.

To make matters worse, when Bettman announced that the NHL would become the first North American pro league to lose an entire season to a labor dispute, he acknowledged that, yeah, maybe the owners would have been interested in something in the mid-40s.

Huh? Was this something he just thought about at that moment? How does that jibe with the "final" offer he sent the players Tuesday night, the one that said, "This is not an invitation to negotiate. It's too late for that"?

In short, who's driving the bus? Or rather, who's driving either of these buses?

Bettman did say that he would endure the embarrassment of having to hold another press conference a few hours later on Wednesday if there was suddenly a deal to be made that saved the balance of the season. Not one to scrimp on the embarrassment factor, Bettman will get that chance after four days.

In golf they call that a mulligan. In the National Hockey League they call that a farce.

In fact, one player rep told ESPN.com on Friday night that "the whole thing's been a bit of a farce."

"Nothing would surprise me," he said.

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

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