Are We Heading Down the Same Path?

By HOWARD BERGER

TORONTO (Oct. 25) – With reasonable hope for an 82-game National Hockey League schedule doused – and assuming there was hope to begin with – it is not incomprehensible that a second entire season could vanish in labor disharmony.

No talks between the NHL and the NHL Players Association are planned before Thursday’s league-imposed deadline to conduct a full schedule and playoffs that would end before June 30 – the league, understandably, without appetite to award the Stanley Cup in July.

Some media commentators here in Canada, impetuously wishing for the lockout to end, appear to be analyzing with their hearts rather than their heads. The NHL, they contend, is posturing in its implied threat to shut down operation for a lengthy interval – perhaps even until next season.

Let us all hope they are reading the situation accurately.

GARY BETTMAN: ALREADY CANCELLED ONE SEASON ON BEHALF OF OWNERS.

For certain, no one could call the NHL’s bluff eight years ago. Though the white elephant in the room was a salary cap, and most expected a prolonged interruption, few actually believed that Gary Bettman would cancel the whole shootin’ match, playoffs included. As with today, pundits tried – until the very last moment – to repudiate the potential of a lost 2004-05 season. That the owners proved willing to disarm the union of leverage by forsaking playoff revenue abundantly increases the chance of it happening again.

Some will claim that no issue could rank as contentiously as the payroll ceiling the owners held out for last time around; that today’s quarrel – the mechanics of attaining a 50/50 revenue-split without compromising current player agreements – should not result in a cataclysm. I wish I felt the same. In the end, the 2004-05 season expired over a paltry differential of $6.5 million; the fractured P-A coerced into a salary cap at the 11th hour.

As it stands, there can be no denying that we’re on the dark, littered path of eight years ago, with the road beginning to slope downward. Words offered for public consumption by both sides bear frightening resemblance to the previous impasse. The timeline back then unfolded as such:

• Eye-to-eye negotiation between Bettman and NHLPA executive-director Bob Goodenow stalled completely between Oct. 1, 2003 and Sep. 9, 2004.

• An offer by the P-A on Sep. 9 was promptly dismissed.

• Bettman locked out the players on Sep. 16 and the sides did not budge for 78 days.

• On Dec. 2, 2004, the P-A offered to end the stalemate by gathering in Toronto one week later – an overture accepted by the league.

• Goodenow told Bettman, on Dec. 9, the players were willing to immediately roll back 24 percent of salaries across the board. Bettman acknowledged movement but dismissed the notion it would form the basis of an agreement.

• In Toronto on Dec. 14, the NHL rejected the P-A proposal out-of-hand, countering with another provision for a hard salary cap. It was promptly repelled by Goodenow.

• There was a 36-day gap between talks.

• The impasse widened after 9½ hours of meetings between the NHL and NHLPA at a Chicago airport hotel on Jan. 19 and 20, 2005.

• Back in Toronto on Feb. 9, Goodenow rejected what the NHL called a “last-ditch” proposal to save the season. A day later, the sides  agreed they were unavoidably on a treadmill.

• On Feb. 16 – in New York – Bettman canceled the 2004-05 season and playoffs.

TIMELINE OF STORIES: Out of curiosity, I shuffled through pages of the Toronto Star on Wednesday and compiled the following articles from the season-ending dispute of eight years ago. The governing issue, as mentioned, is different this time around but the words are eerily similar.

Pierre LeBrun, then covering hockey for Canadian Press, wrote:      

SEP. 10 – Any sliver of hope of avoiding an NHL lockout seemingly went out the window yesterday. The NHL Players’ Association delivered its first proposal since last October to the NHL and the league was not impressed.

“I don’t believe that the proposal today was anything but window dressing, if that,” Bill Daly, the NHL’s executive vice-president, said.

“It is clear the owners remain stuck at trying to get a salary cap,” countered Vancouver Canucks centre Trevor Linden, the president of the players’ executive committee. “At some point the owners need to understand the players will never accept a salary cap or any system arbitrarily linking payroll to league revenues. Our proposal today was the best chance we saw to save the hockey season.”

It was the first time players and owners were at a negotiating session since Oct. 1, when the NHLPA made its last proposal (although the league claims it was June 2003). With no talks planned before Wednesday’s expiry of the collective bargaining agreement, a lockout is expected to be triggered after the NHL’s board of governors meet the same day in New York. That would mean no NHL hockey for the foreseeable future.

With the lockout underway, Ken Campbell of the Toronto Star wrote:

SEP. 16 – The NHL lockout began at midnight with both sides exhibiting a sense of resolve that could see a labor dispute do to a professional sports league what two world wars could not. Never in the history of North American professional sports has a league shut down for an entire season, but when NHL commissioner Gary Bettman and NHL Players’ Association executive director Bob Goodenow spoke yesterday, each made it clear his side is willing to sacrifice the season in order to make a deal that works.

“We know what we need to resume playing,” Bettman said after meeting with the league’s board of governors. “When we have the right system, and it’s agreed to . . . if there’s enough time to play some games, we’ll do it and if there’s not, we won’t. The union has done a great job of obfuscating and delaying all in pursuit of the single-minded objective of having a fight. They are apparently convinced that, come sometime this season, the owners’ resolve will waiver and, I tell you, that is wrong, wrong, wrong.”

Goodenow was just as adamant about the players’ resolve, reiterating the mantra the rank and file has been saying for the past year: it will never accept a deal that includes what the players perceive to be a salary cap.

“I think Gary addressed the issue that part of their strategy that we know exists is that they would end up in a situation where they would declare an impasse and implement a contract and try to break the union,” Goodenow said. “I think that is a very ill-advised strategy and I think the results of it could be catastrophic.”

Bettman depicted the league as being on life support, in large part because he said 75 per cent of revenues are directed toward player salaries. He said teams lost $224 million (all figures U.S.) last season and more than $1.8 billion since the collective bargaining agreement was struck in 1995. Bettman admitted that extending the agreement in order to get player participation in the Olympics in 1998 “might have been a mistake.”

In the midst of the 78-day negotiating gap, Campbell wrote:

NOV. 18 – With the NHL lockout entering its 10th week yesterday, Bob Goodenow scored an important victory with some of the most powerful men in hockey.

As the NHL Players’ Association executive director left an airport hotel in Chicago after five hours of meetings, he did so secure in the knowledge that he won over dissenters and solidified his standing with the player agents who were already in his corner. Goodenow met with 62 agents yesterday and unlike the pep rally with the players two weeks ago, this meeting was choc full of meaty issues and a sense that the agents know exactly where the union is headed and the reasoning behind its decisions.

“They almost put us in the negotiating room,” said Pat Morris, who counts Chris Pronger and Todd Bertuzzi among his clients. Morris’s partner, super agent Don Meehan, also left the meeting feeling he now has a much better grounding on the issues and exactly what ramifications the proposals by both the NHLPA and the owners would have on the players. “If I were in a position to speak to various owners within the league, I would be in the position to have a lively debate over the considerations available,” Meehan said. “I feel very strongly about that.”

Going into the meeting, there was a perception by some observers that a few agents were critical of Goodenow’s handling of the lockout. That certainly didn’t seem to be the case yesterday. “The people walk out of here today confident and comfortable with the people driving the bus,” said Don Baizley, whose 32 years as an agent make him the industry’s elder statesman. “This was not a fractious meeting. There wasn’t a single fractious moment in there.”

Goodenow also denied reports the union was planning to give the owners a new proposal. “The league is asking for players to correct situations which the CBA is not really the fault of. We can’t be the solutions to all of their ills, and it’s really disappointing that Gary Bettman and the owners don’t step up and take responsibility for some of the problems they themselves have created.’’

Campbell updated the impasse with news of a potential breakthrough:

DEC. 3 – The NHL Players’ Association has extended an olive branch to the NHL in an effort to end the lockout that will hit the 80-day mark tomorrow, but don’t expect a salary cap of any description to be attached to it.

The league accepted an offer yesterday from NHLPA executive director Bob Goodenow to attend bargaining sessions in Toronto Dec. 9 and 10. The meetings will take place at the league’s Air Canada Centre offices. The union also said it is crafting a new proposal, which will reportedly be an enhanced version of the one the league turned down in September — the last times the two sides met face-to-face. 

The meetings could very well be the last opportunity both sides have to save the season. No drop-dead date has been disclosed, but the speculation is that Dec. 15 is the day of reckoning. Sources say the NHLPA intends to stand firm on its opposition to any sort of hard or soft salary cap, something the league insists it needs in any new deal for a collective bargaining agreement.

“We’ve set aside a couple of days and are obviously prepared to go as long as it takes to get a new agreement,” said Ted Saskin, senior director of the NHLPA. He declined to disclose what’s in the new offer. “In fairness to the collective bargaining process, we will not be discussing our proposal publicly until after it has been communicated to the NHL,” said Saskin. Sources maintain, however, that it will be more of the same elements that were rejected in the union’s previous proposal.

“We look forward to meeting with the NHL Players’ Association next week,” Daly said in a statement. “We are hopeful that the NHLPA’s offer will be a meaningful effort to address the league’s economic problems. When we receive the proposal, we will evaluate it closely and respond appropriately.

“We need the union to bring a sense of urgency to the table. To this point, I don’t think they’ve done that. We need to make the right deal. To make a deal just to play hockey games this year is not right.”

The Dec. 9 negotiation in Toronto went nowhere. Ken Campbell:

DEC. 10 – If you believe NHL commissioner Gary Bettman, the proposal the players offered yesterday in an effort to end the lockout represents a one-time concession that is intriguing, but ultimately cures only hockey’s symptoms without doing little for the disease.

If you believe NHL Players’ Association executive director Bob Goodenow, the players altered the course of history with a dramatic commitment to drive salaries downward and alter hockey’s economic landscape forever.

In roughly 90 minutes yesterday, the league digested the players’ proposal, which calls for a six-year deal that would expire after the 2009-10 season. It features as its centerpiece a shocking across-the-board pay cut of 24 per cent in each season of all remaining contracts, but also contains salary restraints for entry-level players, qualifying offers and salary arbitration, along with a payroll tax and a revenue-sharing plan.

But, as expected, there is no salary cap component of any kind and despite the overwhelming numbers the union presented, the philosophical divide between the two sides remains as pronounced as it did more than a year ago. Bettman said the league will study the proposal and will respond to it, likely next Tuesday in Toronto. He said the league will make a counter-proposal next week.

“I will acknowledge that one aspect of the proposal is very significant,” Bettman said. “That element is a recognition by the union of our economic condition, but it is a one-time element. We have said consistently that the focus must be on the overall systematic issue and the long-term needs  and health of our game.”

Goodenow said the players have made enormous concessions in order to save the season and address the league’s concerns, but also said there is still room to negotiate.

“The whole world has been adjusted downward by this proposal today,” Goodenow said last night. “For negotiating and arbitrating, the world is 24 per cent less — that is a fact. This proposal provides a basis for an agreement. If the league decides it’s not sufficient, that would be unfortunate.”

Toronto Star columnist Damien Cox offered this opinion:

DEC. 11 – It is to laugh when some suggest that if the NHL owners don’t come back to the table in some form of meek acceptance of the players’ latest offer tomorrow, the players will be forever bitter and alienated.

Well, gosh, how will we know the difference?

Over the past decade, the members of the NHL Players’ Association have become terrifically wealthy, enjoyed superb working conditions in gorgeous new playpens and generally enjoyed being an elite work force that the rest of us can only envy from afar. And good for them. They’ve earned it and, as a wise man once said, any man who works for another man is never overpaid.

But has it made them happy? Has it made them love the NHL? No. Instead, the players’ union and its members has seemed perpetually aggrieved, insulted at every turn by the very employers who have made them filthy rich. They say they love the game, but wouldn’t you like to see just one of these players say aloud that they love the league, or their team, or their fabulous job? Just once?

They have come to be loyal to their union more than the industry itself and certainly that is their choice. But don’t tell me how unhappy they’ll be if the owners come back to the table with a salary cap tomorrow. Don’t tell me that if this season is blown up they’ll never, ever forgive the owners. Don’t tell me, as I and thousands of other hockey parents ferry our children to and from the rink multiple times every week and smile broadly as we watch them play, how this is going to destroy hockey as we know it.

What a bunch of baloney.

Talks broke off after a rancorous session in Toronto, Dec. 14. Campbell:

DEC. 15 – After a day in which numbers and percentages were tossed around by both sides at a mind boggling pace, it became clear that the NHL and its locked-out players actually aren’t all that far apart on the issue of money. But what also became clear is that the philosophical divide between the two sides couldn’t be any larger than it is now. That difference of opinion on how best to cure the league’s economic ills is what is now putting this NHL season in jeopardy.

As expected, after a 70-minute meeting yesterday, the NHL rejected the players’ proposal of last week and offered a counter proposal with a hard salary cap that was rejected by the players. And even though the season hangs in the balance, no new talks are scheduled.

The centerpiece of the league’s proposal was a hard salary cap that would see the players receive 54 per cent of revenues each season, with teams spending a minimum of $34.6 million on salaries per season and a maximum of $38.6 million. The players’ proposal, with its rollback and other concessions, would give the players 56.6 per cent of league revenues on Day 1 of a new agreement, according to commissioner Gary Bettman.

“We should be able to reach an agreement because, after all, this should be about money,” Bettman said. “If we cannot make an agreement with such a modest gap to bridge, it must be because the union does not believe its proposed system will actually reduce costs to the 56.6 per cent level and keep them there. The result that is perhaps the union’s hope will be the resumption of the inflationary spiral.”

Bettman acknowledged that the players’ proposal, which included an across-the-board 24 per cent rollback on salaries, was a “big-time, significant and meaningful move,” but reiterated his opinion that it was a onetime concession that does little to alleviate the league’s long term financial troubles. “We demonstrated (to the players) in hard numbers that if we accepted the union’s proposal and framework, we would be back in the same position, best case, within two to three years, continuing to struggle the entire time,” Bettman said. “The unanimous conclusion was that the union’s proposal does not work. It is fatally flawed as a system going forward. Of that, I and our 30 clubs have absolutely no doubt.”

NHL Players’ Association executive director Bob Goodenow countered by saying the NHL is using bogus numbers in its projections and that the players’ proposal was a real and tangible attempt at addressing the owners’ financial concerns on every level. While Bettman said salaries have risen an average of 12 per cent a year over the past decade, Goodenow pointed out that the rate of growth has declined drastically, to the point where salaries rose just 2.2 per cent last season.

“Their projections, I would suggest, are wildly unreliable, using an assortment of made-up numbers from a wide variety of time periods. I can tell you these projections are completely useless and phony,” Goodenow said. “The league took what they liked from our proposal, made changes and slapped a salary cap on top of it. Gary remains fixated on a salary cap solution. As long as that’s the case, there will be problems.”

Bettman, meanwhile, reiterated his opposition to a payroll tax and held firm to his insistence on a salary cap.

“We have no interest in a luxury tax at any threshold,” Bettman said. “Quite frankly, any system which envisions $40 million, $50 million or $60 million payrolls is not a system that has any interest for us.”

Five weeks passed before another owners-players meeting. Campbell:

JAN. 21 – In the end, 9½ hours of talks over two days did little more than spike optimism that the NHL lockout might end, because it didn’t bring the league and its players one iota closer on the core issue that is at the root of the dispute.

With this season hanging in the balance, the two sides wrapped up two days of informal meetings yesterday claiming there was great dialogue, but essentially acknowledging that the league has not moved at all on its insistence for a salary cap and the players have not moved at all in an effort to accommodate one. No further talks are scheduled but both sides vowed to keep the lines of communication open. They will likely talk again next week, which may not leave enough time to salvage this season.

“The differences of opinion remain and they’re differences that are strongly felt between the respective sides,” said NHL Players’ Association senior director Ted Saskin. “There’s certainly enough areas of disagreement between us that’s certainly not allowing us to make progress.”

NHL senior vice-president and chief legal officer Bill Daly, who was the league’s point man in the absence of chairman of the board Harley Hotchkiss, was no more encouraging than his union counterpart.

“I can’t say we’re any closer because the philosophical issue remains,” Daly said. “We’ve had two good days of communication, but we still have strong philosophical differences.”

Time is running out on the season and the sides remain as far apart as ever on the cost certainty issue. Saskin acknowledged as much yesterday when he said, “We all know that time is not our ally in this process.”

A last-ditch meeting occurred in Toronto, Feb. 10. Again, Ken Campbell:

FEB. 11 – The agonizing death-march that is the 2004-05 NHL season took another step closer to completion yesterday when the two sides in the dispute acknowledged they’ve been on a philosophical treadmill since the process began almost five months ago.

What little hope there was for a season was reduced to almost nil yesterday after four hours of unproductive talks between the league and the NHL Players’ Association at the league’s office in Toronto. A frustrated NHL commissioner Gary Bettman flew back to New York with vice-president and chief legal officer Bill Daly to effectively plan the final death blow for the season. That will likely happen between Tuesday and Thursday with an announcement from the NHL’s Manhattan headquarters.

One insider said the meeting was the least productive to date — and that’s saying something — and that Bettman was furious with the lack of progress.

“It was a pointless meeting,” a grim Daly said shortly after it ended yesterday afternoon. “Quite frankly, I don’t know why they asked us to stay overnight. I don’t know what their agenda was. I just know there was no progress. At this point, we’re out of tricks.

“NHLPA senior director Ted Saskin seemed equally fatalistic about the future of this season. “We’re not going to pick up the phone this weekend,” Saskin said. “We’re done.”

That view on the state of the season is about the only thing the two sides have agreed on since the lockout began, and the divisions were clearly evident again yesterday.

Campbell then described the end-game everyone saw coming:

FEB. 17 NEW YORK – Standing amid the wreckage of a lost season, NHL commissioner Gary Bettman vowed his league “will be back” sometime next season and “be better than ever.”

It’s difficult to fathom how things could be much worse than they were yesterday, the day Bettman gave the NHL the ignominious distinction of being the first league in North American professional sports history to wipe out a season. Through its 88-year history, the NHL has survived two world wars, the Great Depression and the emergence of a rival league, but it couldn’t solve an owner-player standoff.

“If you want to know how I feel, I’ll summarize it in one word, terrible,” Bettman said. “This is a sad, regrettable day that all of us wish could have been avoided. Everyone associated with the National Hockey League owes our fans an apology for being unable to accomplish what is necessary for our game and our fans. We are truly sorry.”

“I had hoped we would never see the NHL owners and their commissioner do the unthinkable and cancel an entire NHL season and the owners did exactly that today,” NHL Players’ Association executive director Bob Goodenow said in Toronto. “The league’s threats, ultimatums, take-it-or-leave it tactics and refusals to negotiate ultimately prevented a deal here.”

“We will be back and we will be back better than ever and hopefully as soon as possible,” Bettman said. “Don’t give up on the game. It’s too good.”

The Toronto Star’s editorial was predictably grim:

FEB. 17 – It’s over.

Not the 2004-05 National Hockey League season — any chance of saving a reasonable semblance of that died months ago. Rather, what was over yesterday was a dim hope that owners and players would agree to salvage a stunted excuse for a season. In the end, despite last-minute progress, they could not rescue even that from their collective stubbornness.

It is, frankly, the darkest period in the NHL’s 88-year history — a history embracing national legends and celebrating heroic deeds on ice. Gary Bettman, the NHL commissioner, and Bob Goodenow, head of the NHL Players’ Association, and their respective sides, together accomplished what World War II didn’t do and neither did the Great Depression. They destroyed an entire season — from start to finish.

In the news conference yesterday, where he publicly terminated the season, Bettman stated the obvious: “Our fans deserve better. The people who earn their livelihood from this game deserve better.”

So true. Neither side has done right for fans and for those whose well-being depends on hockey. Millionaire team owners and players, whose average salary was $1.8 million (U.S.) last year, are well placed to weather the lockout. Not so a waitress at a sports bar who has had her tips slashed in the absence of games, or a man selling hockey souvenirs. Their plight, and the disappointment of millions of fans, stings all the more in the knowledge that the season need not have been erased.

After months of deadlock, there was real movement in recent days. With the clock running out, the players agreed to a salary cap, which they had long pledged never to accept. And owners agreed to lift their proposed linkage of players’ salaries to revenues in the league. The two sides were tantalizingly close as final hours ticked away; the owners offered a $42.5 million (U.S.) salary cap while the union wanted $49 million (U.S.). Had that movement occurred last fall, fans might be enjoying Hockey Night in Canada this weekend. Bars could be hopping, waiters and waitresses could be earning tips, and young players with dreams of someday hoisting a Stanley Cup would again have heroes to look up to.

But no. Stubbornness carried the day until it was too late.

Bettman pledged that NHL hockey would come back “better than ever.” That remains to be seen. Even if it does, thousands of fans may no longer be on hand to share it. The NHL’s last game was played on June 7, 2004, when the Tampa Bay Lightning beat the Calgary Flames to win the Stanley Cup. Even assuming that NHL play resumes on schedule this fall, well over a year will have elapsed without league play.

NHL owners and players will have forced fans to look elsewhere for entertainment over all that time. Interest has already waned and will fade even more by the fall. It seldom is discussed any more in men’s beer-league dressing rooms, and when it is, both the NHL players and owners are held in disgust. Alternatives to hockey abound. Young people increasingly look to basketball’s hoop stars for their sports thrills. And even long-time fans are finding there is, indeed, life after hockey.

This dispute won’t last forever. NHL play will someday return. But there’s a real risk it won’t be the NHL as we once knew it — the repository of hopes and dreams for generations of Canadians. Instead, what we will have is just professional hockey: players skating for money, backed by owners who never lift an eye from the bottom line.

That’s what both sides have shown us in this labor dispute. It’s an ugly sight. And Canada’s national game may never recover.

Might we be facing a similarly bleak outcome in the current labor dispute? Few people are willing to concede as much. Time, of course, will tell.

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