Owners rejection won't help their cause

Updated: December 15, 2004, 8:54 PM ET
By Adam Proteau | The Hockey News

The end is nigh. Or at least, the beginning of the end is nigh. But as Gary Bettman rejects the NHLPA's sizeable offer, he'll be rejecting a union that suddenly, finally, looks ready to reclaim the public favor they once had a stranglehold on.

Thanks to the players' proposal, we have a much clearer picture as to whether there will be an NHL or an End-HL this season. That's because the NHLPA got sick of playing patsy in the public relations arena, pushing back with a deal that puts Gary Bettman and his owner overlords dead in the middle of a rock and hard place.

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Said offer only can be classified as a stunner -- unless you're a player, in which case it can only be classified in terms usually reserved for ex-spouses and That Clod Who Stole Your Parking Space During Holiday Shopping Season, Even Though Your Turning Signal Clearly Was On Before His.

For starters, look no further than the players' 24 percent salary rollback, which is to a pro athlete as the abolition of heroin is to the fashion industry. Twenty-four used to represent some players' favorite TV show. Now they'll be unable to speak the words without twitching -- or they'll skip past it, like hotels do between the 12th and "14th" floors -- and guys like Chris Gratton, Bryan McCabe and Chris Chelios will have to change uniform numbers.

That ain't the half of it. The union's concessions on arbitration, entry level and qualifying salaries, and, most important, to revenue-sharing, amount to nothing less than a one-sided victory for the owners, while allowing Goodenow to save his job in the process.

That isn't to say the owners should rush to accept Goodenow's terms as-is. Remember, the union hasn't said their latest offer is their final one, only that it should lay the groundwork for an agreement. They're right, but they're right on the condition that they're willing to negotiate the numbers that will drive the league toward competitive balance -- i.e, the luxury tax limits and the level of penalties for breaching those limits.

But most, if not all of the other salary inflators the league was getting hammered on have been adjusted in the owners' favor. Salary arbitration, in many hockey insiders' minds the single-biggest inflator of payrolls, will cease to be the one-sided stickup program it is now. In addition, teams will be permitted to take their own players to arbitration in hopes of reducing their salary. And the staggering rollback will give the owners an instant windfall -- which, if they're truly the savvy businessmen they claim to be, they'll invest in self-control classes before every free agent season begins.

In one sense, the proposal is a stunning admission on Goodenow's part. With it, the days of debating how much of a financial disaster the league is in are done. No longer can nostrils be pinched because the name on the report says Levitt or Forbes; what matters is that all the reports stink like an outhouse at a burrito love-in. The point is now officially taken, the message received.

However, the union's rebuttal will resonate just as loud with NHL fans. Though the players have taken a PR whooping since the lockout began, this proposal is bound to bring a chunk of public sentiment back in their favor. Joe Season-Ticket Holder can't look at what the players have offered, turn in the other direction and see owners who aren't willing to guarantee lower ticket prices, then come away rooting for the likes of Bill Wirtz and Wal-Mart Inc.

With its offer, the union has taken the argument the owners were using to their advantage -- the idea that no one can be guaranteed a lucrative payday for what they do -- and turned it against them. "Here's a mulligan for your last decade of screw-ups," the players' proposal says, "and now we're even. Now you take your business, with all the potential for success and failure that goes along with any kind of business, and run it like a business. Demonstrate the solidarity you've demonstrated the last few months, only do it when agents are whispering sweet warnings in your ear. Ban multi-year abominations in the same way you've banned the owners from talking publicly about the lockout. Take your money away from where your mouth is."

Indeed, if players can't be guaranteed a lifelong living, why should owners -- who started out with more money than players did in the first place -- get anything similar? Are the owners like players, fighting for the rights of future generations of their namesakes -- or are they out for themselves, as they've been since the dawn of time?

Here's something else the NHL needs to consider: If the owners don't make some effort to meet the players halfway, who's to say there will be future generations of NHL owners at all? Sure, some polls have shown fans are willing to watch replacement players, but if the league's image turns an ugly hue of Union-Buster Yellow, there's no guarantee fan support will remain.

That goes double if Jeremy Roenick's threats come to pass and an angry NHLPA migrates to another league such as the WHA, Vol. 3. Let's face it, ticket prices wouldn't go down in a Replacement Player NHL (RPNHL?) -- and it's hard to imagine a rival league charging more money for tickets -- so there's little doubt as to which outfit would be able to put on a better, more affordable product. Advantage, players.

The NHLPA's offer has forced Bettman into two options of reply, neither of which rational folk would consider ideal: (1) he can move off his demand for a straight-up hard cap system and instead counter-propose compromise and a quicker road to fiscal sanity than the route that takes him to the U.S. Labor Board's door, or (2) he can throw up his hands, feign disgust, and cement his legacy as The Man Who Killed Hockey.

But he won't be alone. If the fog of rhetoric lifts and the roadmap of the next 12 months becomes wholly apparent, every owner who gave Bettman the go-ahead to cancel the year will find his name permanently smeared, just as every owner who spoke up in favor of compromise and conciliation will be heralded for burning while the rest of Rome fiddled.

There's a famous line from The Big Trail, an old John Wayne western, that Bettman and the owners would be wise to heed before they discard the players' proposal and send their season to the shredder. It goes like this:

"When a man begins to do a lot of talking about hanging, he'd better make pretty sure as to who's going to decorate the end of the rope."

Sage advice for a league that appears to be in love with its own noose.

E-mail Adam Proteau at aproteau@thehockeynews.com.

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