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So here we are, hockey fans, a full month into the 2004 unrestricted free agent market, and the results thus far have been...underwhelming.

At this time, the only unrestricted free agents of note to sign with other clubs were Dominik Hasek, Mark Recchi, Craig Conroy, Mike Ricci, Brian Rolston, Mike Knuble and Richard Matvichuk.

Most of these would've been considered major signings...three years ago. Of this bunch, only Conroy and Knuble received what would be considered sizeable raises.

If this year's market is notable for anything, it's the lack of movement and of free agents signing the significant deals we've seen in the past.

Marquee names like Paul Kariya, Alex Kovalev, Ziggy Palffy, Glen Murray, Alexei Zhamnov, Peter Bondra and Alexei Zhitnik remain unsigned by early August, something that would've been unthinkable if this year's market were as frenzied as those of the recent past.

As I noted in my recent articles, the reason for this is the uncertainty over the next Collective Bargaining Agreement, which hangs like a dark cloud over the summer of 2004, impacting the UFA market.

But as we swing into August, there's a few signs that some movement, akin to a volcano bubbling undetected below the earth's surface, may be happening behind the scenes.

When it does occur, however, expect a slow-moving flow of signings rather than a Vesuvian eruption.

Within the past week, we've discovered that four clubs - the Phoenix Coyotes, Dallas Stars, Pittsburgh Penguins and St. Louis Blues - have engaged in a bidding war for the services of future Hall of Fame winger Brett Hull.

Granted, the numbers being bandied around are nothing compared to what "the Golden Brett" earned in his prime, or even last season. The Stars are believed offering a one-year deal worth just over $2.2 million, while the Coyotes are countering with a two-year offer, the second year of which will be determined by Hull's performance in the first year.

Whoever lands Hull will likely get him to a one or two-year deal earning him close to $2.5 million to start for next season, half of what he made in his final season with the Detroit Red Wings.

The Stars and Coyotes are also interested in signing veteran defenceman Teppo Numminen, as are the Nashville Predators.

Any deal that Numminen signs, however, will likely be tied to how many games he can play and how his health affects his performance. He missed the finals games of the regular season and the playoffs due to a heart condition, of which he had off-season surgery to repair.

Even if those teams are satisfied Numminen's heart is 100 percent repaired, he'll likely get a one-year deal worth around $2 million.

Meanwhile, a dozen teams are said to be interested in former LA Kings centre Jason Allison, who missed all of last season with a whiplash injury. While there are concerns over his injury history, which will undoubtedly be factored into the next contract he signs, when healthy Allison is a talented, first-line playmaking centre.

The Edmonton Oilers have expressed interest, but their attention remains fixed on Petr Nedved, whom I'll touch on momentarily. The most interested party is the Carolina Hurricanes, who plan on bringing Allison to Raleigh to not only meet with team officials but also to have a series of test conducted by their team doctors.

GM Jim Rutherford insists talks with Allison are "preliminary" but it's obvious his interest is genuine, and the feeling may be mutual. Hurricanes head coach Peter Laviolette was the Bruins assistant coach during Allison's final season in Boston, and both have a mutual respect. That could give the 'Canes the inside track to signing him.

Regardless of who lands Allison, it's obvious he won't make $8 million for next season as he did during his years with the Kings. Indeed, once bonuses are factored in, it wouldn't be shocking if Allison earned little more than half that amount if he stays healthy and rounds back into form.

As for Nedved, he's narrowed the number of teams he'd like to sign with down to three, with the Edmonton Oilers being one of the clubs on the list.

Still, there are concerns regarding Nedved and his supermodel wife juggling their careers. He'd love to play for the Oilers again, but his wife cannot earn a living there. New York or Los Angeles would likely be her cities of choice, but none of them made the cut.

Regardless of the personal reasons Nedved must take into account, it still boils down to money.The Oilers are believed to have offer him a three-year, $9 million deal, and it's unlikely he'll find another club to give him much more than that. He certainly won't make anywhere near $5 million US.

As for Kariya, Murray, Kovalev and the rest, we're likely to start hearing their names popping up more often in the rumour mill than we did in July, because once either Hull, Allison or Nedved are signed - and it's quite apparent at least one of them will have a deal in place sometime in August - that deal could be used as the marker for determining the market value of the marquee name players.

That doesn't mean the top guys will make the same salaries as Hull or Allison or Nedved, but rather some could end up signing contracts that could be either half or three-quarters of what they made last season.

Guys like Kovalev, Palffy, and Pavol Demitra, who all earned over $6 million last season (Palffy earning $7 mil) may have to sign deals starting at around $3.5 million. Peter Bondra, who made $4.5 million, could see himself down to between $2.5 - $3 million for next season.

Those who will get raises, like Kariya and Murray, likely won't find them to be significantly higher over what they made last season.

Murray, who made $3.85 million, might have to settle for just over $4 million, but he could face the possibility of a slight cut as well.

Kariya, who made a bargain basement $1.2 million last season, is thought to be seeking $5 million, but he too could be looking at the neighbourhood of $2.5-$3 million.

Of course, it's entirely possible most of those players could a month from now still be on the sidelines with no contract in hand, preferring to await the outcome of the next CBA in hopes that'll unleash a flurry of interest in them and what they'll undoubtedly hope will be some serious offers.

But it's also quite likely that those players could opt to sign for whatever they can get now, rather than risk having to accept lesser deals in the supposedly brave new world of a new CBA with either a salary cap (which is what "cost certainty" is) or some form of a luxury tax in place.


With concerns over the future of the NHL on everyone's minds these days, the most obvious question is, what alternative may be for players and fans if the 2004-05 NHL season is lost in whole or in part to a lockout?

Many NHL players are already casting their eyes across the pond to Europe, signing contracts with European clubs in order to have some place to play if the NHL is shut down.

Most of those signings, however, involve players in the upper echelon of the NHL talent pool, like Joe Thornton. Even those players who are openly considering such a decision, like Roberto Luongo, Vincent Lecavalier and Dany Heatley, would not be mistaken for non-descript NHL talent.

A barnstorming league of NHL'ers is also starting to get some play in the press, akin to what Wayne Gretzky and some of his buddies did during the 1994-95 lockout.

Then there's the reborn World Hockey Association, which has already drafted many top NHL players, including Dany Heatley, Simon Gagne, Todd Bertuzzi, Joe Thornton and more.

But the notion of those players actually playing for the WHA is a stretch.

Indeed, the possibility of the WHA getting off the ground, let alone surviving for one season, is a long-shot.

According to their official website, there are presently 8 franchises in the upstart league, located in Dallas, Toronto, Detroit, Halifax, Hamilton, Miami, Vancouver and Quebec City.

However, according to news reports, two of these clubs, the Toronto Toros and the Vancouver Blazers, may not have a venue in order to ice a club. Without an arena, they're sunk.

The WHA has yet to announce the hiring of their coaches and general managers, although President of Player Operations Peter Young promises they'll be forthcoming. To date, only the coach of the Detroit franchise and the GM of the Quebec City franchise have been named.

Worse, with the league set to begin their season in October, not a single player has been signed.

And that's where the WHA's true threat to their survival exists.

The reason the World Hockey Association lasted for seven years in it's previous incarnation in the 1970s was that it had the money to lure some of the top NHL talent into their league.

In 1972, the league gained legitimacy when the Winnipeg Jets signed superstar Bobby Hull to a million dollar contract, a sum which was then unheard-of by NHL standards. That opened the floodgates as notable NHL stars like Gerry Cheevers, Bernie Parent, and JC Tremblay followed suit, along with many of the NHL's lesser lights such as Ralph Backstrom, Tom Webster, Marc Tardif and Wayne Connolly.

It was able to lure Gordie Howe out of retirement, primarily by the Houston Aeros drafting his sons, but also by paying him more money in one season than he ever saw in any of the 26 he spent with the Detroit Red Wings.

Other notable NHL stars to jump to the WHA were Frank Mahovlich, Dave Keon, Jacques Plante, former Calder winner Brit Selby and Summit Series hero Paul Henderson.

While the league wasn't full of marquee names, they were able to lure enough to generate drawing power at the gate. And while the league would shrink over time from 14 franchises to 7 in its final season of existance, they had built up a strong enough following to ensure that four of those franchises would survive as part of the NHL in 1979.

If the WHA were to land a handful of marquee NHL names to their rosters, they'd stand a good chance of at least surviving through their first season.

But unlike 1972, the current version of the WHA has a mandatory $10 million salary cap, although each team is allowed to spend up to $5 million each to sign one marquee name player.

The problem, of course, is finding a star NHL player to commit to one season at $5 million.

All those clubs can have rosters filled with players considered third and fourth liners, fifth and sixth defencemen and backup goalies by NHL standards, but hockey fans aren't likely to turn out on a consistent basis to see rosters full of those guys.

To draw, you need a recognizable name, someone who'll bring the fans out on a consistent basis. Someone who'll give the league legitimacy.

And that's the problem. Even if the WHA manages to fill their rosters with second tier talent and one marquee player each, there's no guarantee they'll keep those guys if the NHL lockout ends before January 2005.

Almost all those players will bolt back to their former clubs in a heartbeat, effectively gutting the rosters of those WHA franchises. At this point, the only thing that might guarantee survival for the WHA is a lengthy NHL lockout, and even then, once the lockout is over, the WHA will likely be sunk.

Salary conditions don't exist in 2004 the way they did in 1972. Back then, Bobby Hull was pissed at the Chicago Blackhawks for stiffing him what he believed his true value was. Other NHL'ers were chafing at the low salaries they got in the NHL, so when an opportunity arose to earn significantly more money, they took it.

Today's NHL'ers certainly aren't unhappy over the money they're making. Even if the NHL manages to get the "cost certainty" they seek, it won't make most NHLers playing in the WHA reconsider the desire to remain with the upstart franchise.

Lack of money and marquee names will be the downfall of the WHA.


As reported by TSN and the Canadian Press, Tampa Bay Lightning star Brad Richards is upset with the Summerside Journal-Pioneer for that paper's criticizing the way he treated his fans during a parade held in his hometown of Murray Harbour, PEI.

As most hockey fans know, Prince Edward Island has rallied around Richards, the small-town boy who not only made the NHL but went on to become a star, playing on a Stanley Cup champion and earning the Conn Smythe award as playoff MVP and the Lady Byng Trophy as the league's most gentlemanly player.

Residing as I do in beautiful Charlottetown, the Island's capital city, where they've also gone "Brad Mad", I wondered what Richards might've done to attract the ire of a PEI newspaper.

Did he snub the 15,000 who swamped his small hometown to catch a glimpse of him with the Stanley Cup? Did he declare that PEI was the armpit of the world? Did he parade through the town in a drunken rampage?

No, turns out Brad's big sin was, in the eyes of the Journal-Pioneer, not signing autographs at the parade and the ceremony held in his honour.

According to the paper, "It's a move that is sure to disappoint legions of hockey-mad supporters. Kids with stars in their eyes who might now begin to entertain the first fleeting thought their hero might have skates of clay.''

According to Richards, the sheer volume of fans who turned out was far too many to sign for at once. "I can't sign 1,000 autographs and say to the other people I can't sign autographs", he said. "Anywhere else I sign autographs.''

According to TSN, the Journal-Pioneer's managing editor replied that, "Richards has become a public figure and must learn there will be both good and bad stories about him that appear in the news media."

I'm sure Richards is well aware of the price of fame by now, if he didn't already know. And if he acted like jerk then he would've deserved to be cut down by an editorial.

But in this case, the Journal-Pioneer appears to be trolling for something to bitch about rather than commenting on real news.

After all, it's been "All Brad, All the Time" on this Island since the Bolts playoff run. I suppose it gets a little dull to keep writing about what a great young talent he is, and how he rose from humble beginnings. And of course the story of his lobster fishing parents has been done to death. Can't have too many feel-good stories about a local boy who made good, there must be a dark side to this guy's personality.

That's one thing I don't like about the media when it comes to celebrities. They build them up and then tear them down. Now if they've done something to deserve being torn down, that's fine, but when they don't please everyone all the time, the press goes after them like a pack of rabid dogs.

So was Richards a jerk for not signing 15,000 autographs? I don't think so. He turned out for his big day. He made himself available. He chatted with fans, he posed for pictures, and he made the Stanley Cup available for everyone to pose with.

The pictures and news footage I saw of the event showed a lot of happy, cheering fans at both the ceremony and the parade, many of them "kids with stars in their eyes". I didn't hear about a lot of complaining or grumbling from those who turned out for Brad's big day.

I didn't bother to go to Murray Harbour for Brad's big day for three reasons. First, I had to work; second, there was plenty of coverage about it on the local news, and finally because I've already been to a "day" held for a member of a Stanley Cup champion team in his hometown.

That was in 2000 when I was living in Anchorage, Alaska, the hometown of Scott Gomez.

After the New Jersey Devils won the 2000 Stanley Cup, Gomez was honoured by the city of Anchorage when he brought the Cup back home in the same manner as Murray Harbour honoured Richards.

Ten of thousands turned out to see the hometown hero with the Stanley Cup. Like Richards, Gomez didn't sign autographs because there were simply too many people to sign for, but like Richards, he made himself available, spoke to the fans, posed for pictures and allowed the fans the opportunity to pose with the greatest trophy in sports.

Not one person in Anchorage, Fairbanks, Juneau or anywhere else in the great state of Alaska took Gomez to task for not signing autographs. They also didn't make an issue out of it when he returned with the Cup again in 2003.

Surely the Pioneer-Journal can find better things to write about than to smear a homegrown hero who's done more to inspire hockey fans on this already hockey-mad Island than anyone who's come before him.

Sadly, it seems that Brad Richards has learned two things about the dark side of fame: no matter how hard you try, you can't please everyone, and there's always a hack looking to cut you down.


Are you getting nervous yet, hockey fans?

As of this writing (August 15th), we're officially one month away from the end of the current Collective Bargaining Agreement. Judging by a lot of what's been reported, things aren't looking good for a new deal to be in place to save the 2004-05 season.

Most of what's been reported has been pessimistic, suggesting both the league and the players association are too far apart to get an agreement in place before September 15th.

So with the NHL seemingly poised to shut down in a month's time, I feel this is as good a time as any to address some points raised by some of my readers.

In my coverage of the CBA talks for, I've been accused of being a "union shill" by one reader, while a few others have pointed out my "obvious pro-union, anti-owner" slant.

Let me make clear that I'm not in either camp, but rather, on the side of you, the hockey fans. I'm one of you, albeit one fortunate enough to have a column on a mainstream media site.

If my coverage appears "pro-union" it's simply because of two factors: one, the NHLPA has done in my opinion a better job of presenting it's case, and two, the owners are to blame for creating this mess in the first place.

Now some suggest assessing blame is "irrelevant" and that only results matter. I disagree, for if we're to gauge where the NHL is headed, we must first understand how we got to this point.

A majority of hockey fans polled recently in Canada have come down firmly on the side of the owners. One cannot go into an NHL chat room or message board or listen to sports radio call-ins without reading or hearing someone calling the players "greedy".

There can be no question that a level of greed does enter into the equation on the players part. After all, whenever one reads of a millionaire hockey player rejecting an multi-year contract giving him a hefty raise in favour of an even more expensive contract, you have to wonder just what these guys are doing with their money and how many more millions do they really need.

But let's get one thing clear: at the end of the day, it's the owners who are paying those salaries. Nobody put a gun to their heads to do it.

The current CBA came about due to the owners desires to both keep player contracts under control and to limit the players access to complete free agency. Under the current CBA, the owners achieved several key points.

One, they imposed the most restrictive free agency system in North American pro sports. Under the current system, players are tied to their respective clubs (barring trade or outright release) until age 31. That means during a player's prime years, he has no access to total free agency unless the team he belongs to allows him to become one.

They also imposed a harsh compensation penalty on any club signing a restricted free agent to an offer sheet, in that if that player's former club decided not to match the offer, the new club paid them five first round draft picks.

While Keith Tkachuk, Joe Sakic and Sergei Federov were the three notable cases of offer sheets from other clubs, their teams matched the offers and thus ensured those players wouldn't be signing elsewhere. It thus became the deterrent it was meant to be, albeit because teams would match offers, not because those making the offers were scared of losing five first rounders.

Another key point was the imposition of a cap on entry-level salaries, designed to ensure teams didn't repeat the folly of the Ottawa Senators, who signed Alexandre Daigle to an expensive rookie contract that subsequently backfired on them when Daigle failed to play up to expectations and earn those millions.

They also achieved the right to walk away from up to three arbitration decisions in two years, thus they bound to an arbiter's decision they didn't agree on, plus could match up to 80% of a subsequent offer from another club if that offer was under the arbiter's decision.

The current CBA was tilted in the owners favour, but rather than wield the power they had to keep player salaries under control, they blew it because of greed and ineptitude.

This isn't just an observer's opinion. Even notable hockey executives like St. Louis Blues GM Larry Pleau,New Jersey Devils GM Lou Lamoriello, Chicago Blackhawks owner Bill Wirtz, former NY Rangers GM Neil Smith, former Vancouver Canucks GM Brian Burke and Boston Bruins president Harry Sinden have been openly critical of the way they and their peers have conducted business over the past ten years.

The greed and ineptitude was apparent in the frenzied bidding wars for unrestricted free agents during the period between 1998 and 2002, which was one of the main reasons player salaries shot up significantly since the current CBA came into existance back in 1995.

It was also apparent in the unwillingness of many teams to toe a harder line with their restricted free agents, as in most cases they wound up paying their RFAs significantly higher raises than they were originally willing to offer up.

It was also apparent in the mockery they made of the entry-level cap, whereby many rookies were signed to contracts laced with bonus clauses earning them considerably more than the rookie cap.

And only the Boston Bruins exercised the right to walk away from an arbiter's decision, although to be fair most teams would be unwilling to do so since usually the players in question were in their prime, as pointed out in a recent article in the Toronto Globe and Mail.

I've heard the argument that the players and their agents out-smarted the owners under the current CBA. In some cases, I'm willing to buy that, but when an owner willingly and consistently pays out high salaries with few if any complaints, that's not being out-smarted.

Some make the suggestion that a "few bad owners and GMs" ruined the current CBA for the other teams and now there must be a better CBA put into place to "protect" the majority from the few loose cannons.

There can be no doubt that some NHL teams made questionable player contract decisions, and there are some who run a fiscally sound club, but the majority bought wholly into the groupthink that higher salaries meant better players and ergo better teams.

The Boston Bruins, long considered (justifiably) as one of the most miserly clubs in the league, knew exactly what they were doing when they set the standard for entry-level contracts by signing Joe Thornton to that three-year bonus-laced rookie contract.

They hadn't taken leave of their senses. They had a young player whom they felt would be the cornerstone of their rebuilding franchise and decided to do whatever it took to get him under contract, even if it meant doing an end-run around the entry-level cap to achieve it.

Most of the NHL teams, including the now perennially cash-strapped Pittsburgh Penguins, followed suit with their promising young rookies. To suggest that a few "bad apples" were responsible is baseless. As your parents once admonished you, "if your friend jumped off a bridge, would you follow him?"

Considering how many jumped off the cliff following the Bruins lead with entry-level contracts, it puts to rest the myth that a few teams were responsible for screwing things up for everyone else.

Thus, if the owners screwed up the very CBA that put the power in their hands over the players, why believe they'll do a better job under a new one?

Some of the NHL's defenders claim the teams had no choice but to follow the lead of the "maverick" clubs, otherwise their on-ice product would suffer as would their chances of becoming contenders.

How then to explain the fact of the New Jersey Devils going to the Stanley Cup finals four times and winning the mug three times while their payroll for most of the past ten years was never among the top five NHL franchises and rarely among the top ten?

How to explain the rise of the Tampa Bay Lightning, who ranked 21st in payroll last season, beating three teams who spent considerably more than they did to advance to the Finals where they then beat the Calgary Flames, who ranked 19th in payroll and upset the Vancouver Canucks and Detroit Red Wings enroute to the Finals?

How to explain the fact that in consecutive seasons (2003 and 2004) the free-spending teams suffered embarrassing early post-season exits, usually at the hands of clubs with payrolls barely half of what they'd spent?

The smart owners and GMs didn't need to throw wads of cash around to build and maintain promising franchises. The rise of the Tampa Bay Lightning may be a true turning point for the league, just as the New Jersey Devils defensive trap was a turning point for the game in 1995, in that a team built well via smart drafting, trades and financially prudent free agent signings is the superior way to build and maintain a winner.

It's been pointed out that most of the owners who signed the current CBA no longer own their NHL franchises and that the new owners would do a better job with a new CBA in place.

Oh really?

Care to explain what happened to the Washington Capitals under Ted Leonsis?

Now I like Mr. Leonsis, who's one of the most approachable executives in hockey. I e-mailed him a couple of times last year regarding Jaromir Jagr and he got back to me promptly.

But let's face it, he took a bath in the Jagr deal and the subsequent one for Robert Lang. He overpaid for both players, believing they would help put his club into Stanley Cup contention, and then wound up having to "eat" parts of their contracts in order to subsequently move them to cut his large payroll.

The Phoenix Coyotes, under part-owner Wayne Gretzky, overpaid for a fading Tony Amonte two years ago and then had to face the embarrassment of shopping him scant months after signing him.

The St. Louis Blues outbid themselves by overpaying Chris Pronger in 2001 and then bringing in expensive veterans like Doug Weight and Keith Tkachuk in hopes they'd bolster their drive for a Stanley Cup.

Instead, they're now saddled with three players whose contracts eat up a huge chunk of their payroll and make them practically untradeable, which now limits them in their search for additional scoring depth on their forward lines.

The LA Kings have cited considerable losses since 1996 under their current ownership, but that didn't stop them from overpaying Jason Allison and Ziggy Palffy.

The Montreal Canadiens changed owners in 2000, and in 2002 overpaid defenceman Patrice Brisebois to an unmovable $4 million per season salary.

The NY Islanders changed hands several times since the current CBA came into being. Their latest owner approved the acquisition of Alexei Yashin and Michael Peca and signed both to hefty contracts they now regret.

The Toronto Maple Leafs changed principal owners a couple of years ago, but that hasn't changed the way they've done business, given the questionable free agent signings of aging talent they've made since then.

The 2003 Western Conference champion Anaheim Mighty Ducks got a bargain in Sergei Fedorov last year, but then overpaid for forward Vaclav Prospal.

Dallas Stars owner Tom Hicks spent money to help build his club into a Cup winner in 1999, but then overpaid for Bill Guerin, Pierre Turgeon and Scott Young.

So forgive me if I'm cynical whenever I hear talk of how the "new blood" owners will be more responsible with a new CBA.

Some folks are of the opinion that, if a lockout occurs, it'll be the owners, rather than the players, who'll crack first.

I'll admit it's possible, but also unlikely.

The players position was more tenuous during the 1994-95 lockout, as most of them back then hadn't made any real contingency plans because they didn't actually believe a lockout would happen. Some players actually turned to jobs outside hockey to make ends meet during that lockout.

That's not the case this time around.

The NHLPA has established a significant "war chest" to tide them over in the event of a lengthy lockout. NHL players make considerably more now than they did ten years ago, meaning most of them have more than enough money to see them through if the league shuts down.

Some are making tentative plans to play in Europe next season, while others are looking at "barnstorming" around North America.

Most of the players will be just fine in the event of a lengthy lockout.

By contrast, the owners won't be seeing any revenue in the event of a lockout. Now granted, these owners don't make their money principally from their NHL franchises and can write off their losses for tax purposes.

That being said, at some point they need to start making money again with those franchises. And while there is some baseless musing over older players trying to pressure Bob Goodenow into signing a new deal if a lockout goes beyond December, there are real rumblings that the big-market clubs don't see eye-to-eye with their smaller-market peers and that they could force NHL commissioner Gary Bettman into getting a deal done.

Most importantly, it's the owners who'll lose more in the long run if a lengthy lockout occurs where it counts the most: at the turnstiles.

In a league where the majority of revenues come from the gate, the NHL cannot afford a lengthy lockout hurting them where they've already been struggling in recent years: the US sports market.

Their forays into expanding throughout the US in the 1990s leaves them with clubs whose situation could become tenous if a lockout occurs. Teams like Anaheim, Atlanta, Chicago, Carolina, Buffalo, Boston, Florida, Nashville, Los Angeles, Phoenix, Pittsburgh and Washington have seen declining attendance figures at various times over the past five years.If a season-long lockout occurs, the impact on some of those markets could be devastating.

Until recently, the NHLPA did a far better job presenting their case due to their October prosposal that suggested a five-percent "give-back" of salaries for next season, a willingness to impose a luxury tax, something they were against ten years ago, revenue-sharing, closing off bonus loopholes in entry-level salaries and changes to the arbitration system.

Some dismiss this as mere "window-dressing" but the union was and is quite serious about it, bringing the proposal up again when the CBA talks picked up again this past February.

There is some talk that the league may indeed incorporate some of those proposals, such as closing off the bonus clause loopholes in entry level salaries and toughening up the arbitration rules.

For months, all we heard in response from the league was their rejection of the union's prosposals in favour of "cost certainty", which Gary Bettman said could be a salary cap but wasn't the only possibility.

We had no idea what these other possibilies could be until recently, when the league finally released their six "cost-certainty" proposals to the union.

A salary cap was one of them which the players have long said they'd reject. But why shouldn't the players accept a salary cap? After all, the NFL and the NBA have them and those leagues are doing better than the NHL.Comparing the NFL and NBA to the NHL is like comparing apples and oranges. Or in this case, a sleek racing car to a Yugo.

The NFL and NBA are hugely popular in North America, and as such they generate far more revenue, not just from the gate, but from broadcasting rights and merchandising. The NHL pales in comparison to what those leagues rake in. The NFL also has a revenue-sharing plan that allows their small market teams to compete favourably with their big market peers, thus ensuring a stronger all-round league.

A salary cap in the NHL isn't going to improve it's popularity or increase it's revenues.

Other proposals from the NHL included the league negotiate the players salaries directly, as was "salary-slotting" whereby different groups of players would recieve different levels of salaries based on where they were "slotted" by their teams, and a payroll range system.

None of those were going to fly with the players, but two of their proposals, one for payrolls based on player and team performance, and another where players could get significant bonuses from playoff revenues under a "player partnership payroll plan" were more viable.

The union's public stance was to reject all six, but there appears to be indication that the performance and partnership plans might be appealing to the union as part of a framework of a larger deal.

So that means there is some leeway starting to be granted on both sides, which could be a good sign as we count down the final days toward "doomsday".

But even if a new deal is hammered out in time and next season is saved, how do we know the next one won't be bastardized as badly as the present one?

If, as some suggest, the players union and the agents out-smarted the owners last time, how do we know they won't do it again? They'll obviously try to find something within the new deal to exploit to their advantage.

And who's to say, based on their previous track record, that the current owners will run things better this time around? How do we know they won't find some way around the entry-level cap? What's to stop them from exploiting any potential loopholes for their personal gain? Will there be anything in place with real teeth to "protect them from themselves"?

One thing is certain: if 19 or 20 of the thirty NHL teams are losing money, the last thing they need is a potentially season-ending lockout.

That makes no sense. It's akin to cutting off your nose to spite your face. If the true reason for the lockout is to crush the players union, as some scribes have suggested, then the NHL is truly a league run by idiots.