Gretzky hopes to avoid using replacement players

Updated: March 10, 2005, 3:51 AM ET
Associated Press

NEW YORK -- Wayne Gretzky saw firsthand just how far NHL players and owners were from ending the lockout -- even at the height of frantic talks.

And when the sides get back to the bargaining table Friday, they will begin anew.

Wayne Gretzky

"It seems like they're starting at square one," the Great One said Tuesday.

Being the greatest player in NHL history puts Gretzky in a unique position. For 20 seasons he rewrote the hockey record book, but now as the managing partner of the Phoenix Coyotes he is on the opposite side of the fight.

His club's bottom line is now his top concern. The Coyotes will survive the lockout that already cost the league one year, but the NHL might have to use replacement players to get back on the ice in the fall.

"My honest opinion is I don't like it," Gretzky said. "They're not the Sundins or the Leetches of the world. This is replacement players, and it is what it is. The commissioner has to do what he thinks is best to get the game back on the map and get it going. We're only one of 30 teams, we'll follow suit."

Gretzky and Mario Lemieux took part in the previous negotiation session on Feb. 19, a meeting that failed to force the un-cancellation of the season three days after commissioner Gary Bettman called it off.

"I hope we can get on some sort of same page or some sort of talking terms where they say 'OK, we're inching our way ahead here, let's meet again next Monday,'" Gretzky said. "If you expect these guys to come out with a deal tomorrow, that's not going to happen. I hope it does, but it's going to be tough."

In the final days before the season was wiped out, the first real progress was made. Owners dropped the demand that league revenues be linked to player costs, and in turn the union agreed for the first time to accept a salary cap.

But they never got close on a number. Bettman said the NHL couldn't stretch beyond a hard cap of $42.5 million per team, and the players' association countered with a soft cap of $49 million.

Gretzky and Lemieux, the player-owner of the Pittsburgh Penguins, joined the negotiations thinking that a compromise could be made. But the topic never came up for discussion.

"If you can agree on a number on a cap and then say 'Let's work everything in there,' then maybe you can be closer together than both sides thought," Gretzky said. "But that doesn't seem to be the case. Obviously they don't like 42, and the league doesn't like 49. So whatever that number is, they want to have things negotiated before they put a number on the table."

Now all previous offers have been rescinded, and Gretzky is not looking to participate in upcoming negotiations.

"If the ownership or the players want me to be involved and help out, I'm a phone call away," he said. "But at this point in time there is no plan for me."

He also hasn't decided whether he will be involved with Team Canada at the upcoming hockey world championship in Austria. Gretzky has served as the club's executive director at past international events, including the 2002 Salt Lake City Olympics.

Whether NHL players return for next year's games in Italy is still very much undecided.

The union wants to have its players there for the third straight Olympics, but Bettman has already said he'd be reluctant to take another long break.

"If we drag this through the summer, the chances of getting a deal done get tougher and tougher," Gretzky said. "And more importantly once we do get a deal done, after missing a full year, do you want to really shut down your league for 16 days to go over to the Olympic Games?"

It is another issue that will have to be addressed in any new collective bargaining agreement. But if the lockout is still in place, players would then be able to take part with their countries if proper insurance can be secured.

With NBC holding Olympic broadcasting rights in the United States, and with the network set to be the over-the-air outlet for the NHL, the league would likely be well-served by having its players showcased in Turin.

"I am a big believer in the Olympics. I think it really helps our sport," Gretzky said. "I think it helps grow it worldwide. I think those two weeks are always positive because the American people rally around it because the U.S. will have a very good team, and winning gold medals is a big part of the U.S. history at the Olympics."

Copyright 2005 by The Associated Press