NHL not dead quite yet
Season still breathing after 9-hour meeting
BY JOHN DELLAPINA
DAILY NEWS SPORTS WRITER
The meeting that was supposed to be short, not so sweet and capped by
an announcement that there would be no NHL hockey this season instead
provided a glimmer of hope.
At the end of approximately nine hours of face-to-face talks
yesterday between the rival principals who have brought the season to
the brink of extinction, it was announced that Gary Bettman, Bob
Goodenow and their seconds would meet again today in New York.
"I don't know why you wouldn't look at it as anything but positive,"
a general manager who requested anonymity told the Canadian Press. "A
deal is only going to get done by the two bodies working at it.
"It doesn't take a genius to figure out the alternative if they're
not in the room talking."
The question is whether it is simply no news or, for the first time
in the five-month lockout that has wiped out more than half of the
2004-05 schedule, owners and players have actually begun to hammer
out the framework of a new collective bargaining agreement.
It is difficult to imagine that NHL commissioner Bettman and NHLPA
executive director Goodenow found some common ground after
approximately two years of staking out diametrically opposed
philosophical positions. What's more, the announcement of next-day
meetings in each of the last two weeks wound up raising only false
hopes when, in fact, little progress had been made.
Still, given the seemingly hopeless backdrop amid which yesterday's
meeting began, it was difficult to see how the sides could spend so
long talking without some compromises being made.
"They're still at it," NHL spokesman Frank Brown said at 8:30 p.m.,
some seven hours after Bettman and league executive VP Bill Daly left
the league offices to meet with Goodenow and union senior director
Ted Saskin in New York. "We won't have any comment tonight."
About two hours later, the NHLPA issued this statement:
"The meeting with the league has ended for this evening. The parties
plan to meet again tomorrow."
That was a stark contrast from the night before, when Daly presented
Saskin with a formal proposal for a new CBA and the two followed up
their relatively brief daytime meeting at Newark Airport with lengthy
conference calls with reporters.
While Daly sounded more positive than Saskin, both conceded they were
stuck over the central issue over which players have been locked out
since Sept. 15 - owners' insistence that a new CBA be based on a
percentage link between league revenues and player costs.
Said Daly: "Today, we presented a formal collective bargaining
proposal that addressed a number of issues that we understand are
important to the players - including the retention of guaranteed
contracts and the salary arbitration system, several other system-
related concessions relating to the Entry Level System and free
agency, added flexibility in payroll range parameters and the
implementation of an unprecedented profit-sharing plan that would be
the cornerstone of a long-term partnership with our players.
"I would hope at least that we would continue to flesh out the
different elements in this proposal and see if we can come and get
further along in the process of reaching an ultimate agreement, and
maybe this proposal can form at least the basis of those
Saskin wasn't holding his breath.
"The league today presented a written proposal with minor variations
of concepts that were presented orally by the NHL last Thursday,"
Saskin said in a statement released after Wednesday's meeting. "We
told the league last week and again today that their multi-layered
salary cap proposals were not the basis for an agreement.
"There isn't much in this offer that's attractive to us or that we
consider fair or necessary for the sport."
One thing Daly and Saskin agreed on was that the reentry of Bettman
and Goodenow into the face-to-face negotiations was necessary.
"We think it's helpful to the process to have the head of the Players
Association and the head of the NHL in the room at this point in
time," Saskin said. "We've gone as far as we can go in our small
group setting and we think it's important to have Bob and Gary join
us at this point."
That said, both sides also understood that they were getting down to
the final few days available to salvage even a slice of this season.
While ESPN.com was reporting yesterday that one owner predicted
Bettman would be announcing the season's cancellation within 48
hours, it should be noted that few individual owners have been kept
abreast of the day-to-day details of the talks.
Still, with more than half the league's players playing in Europe and
several clubs well short of having enough players signed to put a
team on the ice, it could take two weeks from the signing of an
agreement until games could begin. That leaves little time to get in
the 30 or so games by the end of April that most observers consider
the bare minimum the NHL would present as a legitimate season.
"I think that there is an understanding in the room and in the
dialogue across the table that we are really at the end with respect
to playing the rest of the season," Daly said. "But the broader
objective is to do a deal within whatever timetable it takes to do a