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'We can't live any longer' under this CBA

5/26/2004 - NHL

TAMPA, Fla. -- NHL commissioner Gary Bettman promised again
Tuesday that owners are determined to reach a radically different
labor agreement no matter how long it takes and warned the players
union not to test that resolve.

Owners and players representatives met for 2½ hours Tuesday, but
Bettman reported no progress toward finalizing a deal both sides
privately fear might not be reached until the 2004-05 season is
lost.

"I don't doubt the players' resolve as Bob [Goodenow, the
players union chief] stated to me and as some players I talked to
stated, but nobody should doubt the owners' resolve," Bettman
said. "If this is a test to see if the owners really mean it, it's
a shame to have to go through all the hardship that will entail to
prove the point. We'd rather not have to go through that."

A recent economic study prepared for the league, challenged by
the players but repeatedly cited by Bettman, concluded that players
get 76 percent of all league revenues -- far more than the
percentage for the other major team sports.

Until the core issue is resolved, Bettman said both sides have
decided there will be no bargaining on lesser issues.

"There is no doubt we understand each other's position
clearly," he said. "Our problems are indisputable and need to be
corrected ... [but] the union has a different view."

A handful of players have said they are overpaid in a league
where the average salary is $1.8 million. But nearly all players
fear a dramatic overhaul wouldn't allow big-market or high-revenue
teams to pursue top free players, thus maintaining an upper
stratosphere for elite players that exists in all other pro sports
-- including the NFL.

The owners are determined to get a hard salary cap or a close
replica that would establish a relatively low ceiling, likely in
the mid-$30 million range per team. That would equalize salaries,
but would all but eliminate the $10 million-a-year deals for
players such as Jaromir Jagr.

Just because small-market Tampa Bay and Calgary reached the
Stanley Cup finals doesn't change the owners' belief that the current
deal is fundamentally flawed, Bettman said.

"It's fascinating and exciting, it's nice for a change to see
different teams in the finals, but the last nine Cups have been won
by teams in the top third in payrolls," Bettman said. "The
ability for [a small-market finalist] to sustain itself is not
there.

"Calgary had a very, very long dry spell of seven years without
making playoffs, and it will be great if they make money for first
time in whenever, but I don't think that means there's not a
competitive problem or a stability problem."

Owners in other sports are watching the NHL labor talks closely.

"It's not about a salary cap. It's about making changes in the
economics of baseball," said Boston Red Sox owner John Henry, who
said changes are also necessary in his sport. "I can tell you
right now, Gary Bettman is looking forward to the strike more than
he's looking forward to the Calgary-Tampa Bay series."

Bettman again insisted there is plenty of time before the
current labor agreement ends Sept. 15 to make a deal because the
side issues can be resolved in "days, if not hours" once a
revenue distribution plan is reached.

Asked whether training camps could remain open if Sept. 15 passed and
there was no deal, Bettman said, "We can't live any longer under
[this] CBA."

On other issues, Bettman said:

  • He expects no dramatic overhaul of the major rules changes
    proposed by general managers to open up the game, such as shrinking
    the size of goalie pads and moving the goal line closer to the end
    boards. However, the nets may move back by only 2 feet, rather than
    3, because major structural changes would be required in some
    arenas otherwise.

  • Russia must be part of any new players rights agreement with
    the International Ice Hockey Federation. Some Russian clubs have
    threatened not to sign any agreement so they can negotiate higher
    fees individually.