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

Updated: May 26, 2004, 3:45 AM ET
Associated Press

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 2 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.

    Copyright 2004 by The Associated Press