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For the second day in a row, a bit of hockey news from an unlikely source caught my eye and gave me yet another idea for an article.

Miami Herald columnist George Richards (sorry, no link, you have to create a profile to gain access to the article) observed yesterday that the Florida Panthers, a rising young team with a bright future, could be facing a serious problem if this lockout isn't resolved by this summer.

"Assuming the 2004-05 season is canceled, and there's little reason to think it won't be, it's possible All-Star goalkeeper Roberto Luongo, Olli Jokinen and Jay Bouwmeester could have played their last games with the Panthers.

These three are big components of the Panthers' youth movement the team hoped would bring it out of the cellar and back into contention in the Eastern Conference.

Yet on July 1 -- if the lockout continues -- those three will be unrestricted free agents. Although the three might not be able to sign long-term deals in Europe or Canada if the league makes a deal with the International Ice Hockey Federation, it's possible one, two or all three could sign elsewhere once the lockout ends."

Richards noted that these players, restricted free agents (RFAs) under the terms of the last collective bargaining agreement (CBA), remain "locked in" to the Panthers during the lockout, meaning no other teams can make them contract offers, nor can they go searching for offers themselves.

But given the uncharted territory of the next CBA, nobody knows for sure what its impact could be upon those RFAs.

This isn't just the Panthers problem. Players such as Tampa Bay's Vincent Lecavalier and Martin St. Louis, Ottawa's Jason Spezza, and Calgary's Jarome Iginla also fall into this category next summer, either due to their contracts expiring last summer, or due to expire this summer.

Most likely, the NHL will make sure some measures are placed into the new CBA to ensure those players rights remain with the teams they were with prior to the imposition of the lockout.

But if, as rumour has it, the unrestricted free agent age is lowered to 27, teams like the Calgary Flames (Iginla), Tampa Bay Lightning (St. Louis) and the aforementioned Panthers (Jokinen) will suddenly find themselves in bidding wars against the big market clubs to keep those players, wars they will not win.

What's that? You believe a potential team-by-team salary cap or an individual cap is going to make those players more affordable for those teams to retain?

Oh, you dear old-fashioned thing, you!

Didn't the NHL tell you? Why, if the UFA age is lowered to 27, and they get their "cost certainty", the marquee talents will still get top dollars. Now granted, those dollars may not be as plentiful as they were under the previous CBA, but there will still be a lot, like say, multi-year deals worth between $4 million - $6 million per season.

If those teams were struggling to get by on payrolls between $24 million and $34 million per season prior to this lockout, and the league's proposed cost certainty, depending on which source you've read lately, sets a cap "floor" of $32 million to $34 million, how will they afford to retain their best players ?

Don't look for the league's revenue-sharing scheme to save them. Drawing from a pool of playoff revenues might generate for those teams, depending on the number of playoff games in a given season between $6 million to $9 million each.

Hey, plenty of money to re-sign their key players, so no problem, right?


That money equals a one-time shot at signing or re-sign a key player per season. If the revenue share is less the next season, teams would have to cut payroll elsewhere if they signed those players to multi-year deals.

That means you'd see a lot of one-year signings.

Now comes the kicker: if they make the playoffs, not only won't they be eligible for revenue-sharing, but they'd have to kick into the pool too, to finance their small market peers who didn't make the playoffs.

Ah, so what, those teams will make lots of money with a strong playoff run.

Sure...if they can have a lengthy run like the Flames and Lightning did last season. But if they're bounced in the first couple of rounds, suddenly there's not as much money from the playoffs to re-sign key players or bring in additional depth.

Indeed, if they were swept in the first round and only had revenues from their two lowly home games to draw upon, it would be like not making the playoffs at all when it comes to scaring up extra cash for payroll...and most of that money would probably go toward the revenue share pot.

So what could happen is guys like Olli and Iggy and Marty could be plucked away from their respective teams by big market clubs willing to pay the money to bring them in.

Sounds familiar, doesn't it?

Oh, but under cost certainty the big market teams will show more restraint because of a hard salary cap.

Perhaps, but given their history, would you be willing to bet the farm on it?

There's also the possibility we could see a bit of a free agent feeding frenzy by this summer if the lockout isn't settled by then.

No, I'm not talking about unrestricted free agents, as nobody is willing to sign them up until they know what's contained in the next CBA.

I'm talking about unsigned junior players.

As first reported by the Canadian Press's Pierre Lebrun (who has done a wonderful job of covering this sad, sorry labour dispute), player agents and lawyers will likely be exploring the possibility of prospects who are drafted but unsigned declaring themselves unrestricted free agents and thus available to the highest bidder.

Here's what agent Paul Krepelka of The Orr Hockey Group told Lebrun:

"I'm sure our group and every other group out there who is in this situation with a high-end player is going to be looking into it pretty carefully if things break down".

Agent and former player Dennis Polonich of CMG Sports was more blunt:

"I'm sure somebody is going to try it."

Lebrun notes that taking this path won't be easy, citing legal expenses, time-consuming court procedures and the unknown outcome.

That, however, doesn't mean somebody won't look into it.

And who knows, if they're successful by this summer or fall, and the lockout is still dragging on, they could set a precedent that could cause plenty of unforeseen grief to many NHL clubs.

One such club is the Philadelphia Flyers, which Lebrun noted has two promising young centers, Jeff Carter and Mike Richards, who were standouts for Team Canada at this year's World Junior Hockey Championships.

If they were to become unrestricted free agents, the Flyers would have to scramble to get them signed up quickly before another team poached them.

And given how cut-throat owners and general managers can be towards each other when they're not engaged in labour war with their players, it wouldn't be surprising if another club were to make a pitch.

Granted, it's a long shot regarding the juniors, but all it takes is one, and then the dominoes fall.

But when it comes to those NHL players currently on RFA status, and those who are still UFAs, there will be a signing frenzy whenever this lockout is settled, regardless of the outcome.

It'll just depend as to the rules of the next CBA, and how they can be legally manipulated by agents and general managers.


Read this interesting bit in yesterday's Los Angeles Times, courtesy of the under-rated Helene Elliott and Chris Foster:

(A) source also said owners were willing to play as few as 20 games this season, which would require a deal within 10 days. They'd benefit from that scenario because salaries would be prorated based on the number of games played and because players aren't paid during the playoffs. Owners could collect playoff money, renew marketing efforts and see the Stanley Cup awarded, avoiding the stigma of becoming the first North American professional sports league to cancel an entire season.

Silly us! Here we've been thinking there's no way the NHL could return to action on anything less than a 48-game schedule, then a 45-game schedule, then 40 games, then 38, 36, 32 and 30, and those devious buggers could actually attempt to foist a 20 gamer on us and call it a season.

Seems far-fetched, but you know something, given how everything's played out thus far, it wouldn't surprise me. And you know something else? For all the bitching most hockey fans would do over it, we'd be so happy to see some semblance of NHL hockey before the first day of spring that we'd lap it up like starving dogs and swear it tastes like filet mignon instead of Alpo.

It would certainly tie in with something blogger Tom Benjamin observed several days ago, and which I quoted in my latest Foxsports column,

"If the WHA can decide to present a tournament this spring to introduce the new league to hockey starved fans, why can't the NHL present a tournament this spring, too? It could celebrate the re-launch of the NHL, and not incidentally, present a Stanley Cup."

Would such a tournament be a farce? Of course it would! And would the winner of that tourney forever have an asterick beside their name in the record books? You betcha! And would hockey fans consider whoever won the Stanley Cup under such a tournament not to be a "true champion" because they didn't have to go through the grind of an 82-game schedule to get there? Yes, indeedy!

And that folks, would further demonstrate the contempt the National Hockey League has for its fans.

As I noted in my January 26th segment of the Faceoff Hockey Show, the NHL would be giving us their collective Rick James impersonation.

"We're the NHL, bitch! We'll do whatever we want, whenever we want, and if you don't like it, here's a riddle for ya. What did the five fingers say to the face?"


My apologies for the lousy impersonation, since Dave Chappelle obviously does it far better than I ever could, be it in print or in person, but ya gotta admit, it fits this situation, which hasn't been funny and only keeps getting sadder and stupider with each passing day.

They'll do whatever they want. It's their league and if both the owners and players are willing to engage in a farce of a shortened season, then so be it, regardless of what we think.

Since the lockout began, we've had both sides proclaim to NHL fans how sorry they are that this situation had to happen, that our support is important to them and how they're working to make the system right.

Folks, if they were genuinely sorry, over half the season wouldn't have been lost to a lockout.

We are not part of the equation, gang, and never have been. The only time we factor in is when it's game time and there are seats to be filled, overpriced concessions to be eaten and drank, and expensive merchandise to be bought. All we are to them is ATMs with legs.

While they've been squabbling over how to split a $2.1 billion pie, they've forgotten who makes that pie possible.

They've ignored the big issues plaguing the game - the deterioration of the on-ice product, the steady drop in popularity in the US market, the inability of working class fans to attend the games - to focus instead on a spitting contest over tying salaries to revenues.

The players, to their credit, have shown a willingness to change the system and bring salaries under control. Their arguments against the type of system the NHL wants to impose are sensible, as is their questioning of how teams report revenues.

Given the numerous concessions they've made, a more sensibly run sports league would take them and run with it.

But Gary Bettman and his circle of hawkish owners aren't content with that.

Give 'em credit, they were able to get the players to agree to slashing entry level salaries, capping entry-level bonuses, give teams the right to take players to arbitration and accept a "high-low" system, and roll back a quarter of their salaries over the next three years.

Other sports league must look at that and applaud. Heck if they could get those kind of results, they'd declare victory and hold a "Game On!" press conference with silly looking baseball caps perched on their noggins.

Bettman and company squeezed concessions out of their players that other sports would probably never get their players to consent to.

They've got the players where they want 'em, and now they should make a few concessions of their own, and actually start working together with the players to get some kind of "cost certainty" that both sides can agree on.

Instead, it's the same message from the league as always: tie those salaries to 54% of revenues or nothing, with revenue sharing that won't cut into regular season revenues. No compromise.

Maybe this tactic will ultimately work for the NHL. Maybe later this coming week, or in a month's time, or next fall, or next year, the players will give in and the league will get its precious cost certainty.

But it didn't have to come to this.

Both sides had five years leading up to last fall to get something in place, to get a new deal worked out in order to avoid a lockout that could threaten the very future of the National Hockey League as a viable "big name" sports league in North America.

Instead, pettiness, jealousy and mistrust dominated "talks". It no longer was about business. It got personal, even though Gary Bettman and Bob Goodenow swear it hasn't.

You can't tell me Jeremy Jacobs and Bill Wirtz and Pete Karmanos and Tom Hicks and Ed Snider haven't made this personal.

You can't tell me Trevor Linden, Bill Guerin, Chris Pronger, Bryan McCabe and Robert Esche haven't made this personal.

Heck, they won't even bring in a third party moderator to help settle this thing. Why? This'll kill ya, because Bettman and Goodenow believe they can settle this themselves and don't need any outside help in doing so.

Man, they've done a bang-up job so far, haven't they?

So while both sides squabble like children, seemingly content to jeopardize their collective futures because they can't find a way to split our money fairly, hockey fans are growing frustrated and weary.

Oh, but we'll all come running back, won't we? Because we love our precious hockey so much, we need our hockey fix like good little junkies, right? We can't live without it.

OK, first of all, die-hards, you can live without it. Don't go comparing your love of the game as an "addiction" because that's insulting to those who struggle with real addictions every day.

Second, yeah, most of us will come running back, but the numbers won't be quite as high as before. And in the non-traditional hockey markets where the league is struggling to grow the game, the hit could be a lot worse.

I gotta be honest with ya, gang, if I wasn't covering this for a living and was only a casual fan, I'd never watch another NHL game again.

What have they done to reward our loyalty? Was the game more affordable for you over the past ten years? Was their merchandise? Was the quality of the product so great that it kept us riveted to the screen or on the edge of our hard plastic seats at the arena?

Is this a sports league worthy of $2.1 billion of your money, hockey fans?

We're being played for saps here, folks, all of us. Our opinion didn't matter leading up to the lockout, it doesn't matter during this lockout, and it won't matter when the day comes that the NHL finally gets back to work.

All that matters to them is that you keep on plunking down your hard-earned cash for their product.

What's that, you say? They've done such a lousy job of marketing that product that a lot of fans will stay away?

Some will, most won't, and they'll gain very few new fans in the bargain. Canadian fans will flock back, as will those in traditional hockey market in the US, while the non-traditional one, as noted earlier, may not be so lucky.

Bottom line, gang, the NHL is confident that, once this nasty little bump in the road called the lockout is over, all their loyal fans will come flocking back.They've even said as much every time there's a press conference and the question of post-lockout fan support is raised.

And why shouldn't they feel that way? After all, it's not like we did anything on a mass scale leading up to the lockout to get their attention and make them reconsider.

There were no mass protests, no major boycotts of regular season and playoff games, no boycotts of the World Cup of Hockey Tournament, no mass demands for refunds of season tickets.

No wonder they're so confident. They know a sucker when they see one, and hockey fans, in their eyes, you're suckers, every last one of you.

Because they're the National Hockey League, and the only time they give a tinker's cuss about you is when you're plunking down money to buy their tickets or merchandise.

Think about that when you decide how you'll reward the NHL owners and players for their generosity to you since last September.


It's Friday evening as I write this. I'm settling down with my first beer of the night, a Harvest Gold Pale Ale from my favourite pub,the Gahan House, while Bob Marley and the Wailers are reassuring me that "everything's gonna be all right".

I'm winding down from a hectic couple of days trying to cover the latest "small group discussions" and the plethora of rumours that were flying around during that time.

I must confess, my rumour tracking skills have grown a bit rusty. Since the lockout was imposed I haven't had to do my usual scouring of the internet for trade and free agent rumours. I also had to bash out two columns for Foxsports, so the last couple of days left me a little drained mentally.

So here we are, after two weeks of two-day meetings that have produced nothing more than the usual "philosophical differences" keeping the two sides from getting a deal done, while the sands of time appear to be rapidly running out on what could become a stillborn 2004-05 NHL season.

It's times like this that I can't help but reflect on how truly stupid this labour dispute is, how frustrating it is to cover it and for you, dear readers, to have to read about it day after day.

This is the wrong time for a labour dispute. The NHL's popularity has never been lower in the all-important US markets as it was prior to this lockout. It had a new TV deal no better than that of arena football's, the lowest revenue sharing of all the North American big league sports, and a duller than dishwater product on the ice.

Yes, salaries needed to be controlled, as did the spending practices of certain owners. But adopting a confrontational style in negotiations with the players was not the way to go. Both sides need to work together for the common good of their league, not run it into the ground playing chicken.

In a game of chicken, you hope the other guy will blink first and swerve out of the way.

One problem with that game: if neither side blinks, they both crash and burn and nobody wins.

Yes, I support the players side for reasons I'm not about to repeat again. If you're new here and wondering why, go read my archives for the past five months or my Foxsports columns.

But for the love of Buddha, why the hell can't they just accept a NFL-style cap system, with prorated bonuses, UFA status after entry-level contracts and renegotiation rights, as long as the system has a genuine revenue sharing system?

I understand their desire for a free market and the principles of free enterprise, but dammit, the system works for the NFL players. None of them are crying about how hard done by they are with their cap system.

Fer cryin' out loud, the first two seasons of their contracts ARE guaranteed, as are the bonuses they get.

Don't tell me the big 8 NHL market clubs wouldn't pony up big money via a similar system to keep you happy, and don't tell me if a team decided to dump you that you couldn't find another sucker, er, owner who'd happily pay up whatever your losing club didn't want to.

The marquee players have been pretty quiet in all this. Most of them probably understand that they're still going to make top dollar when all is said and done, regardless of the outcome. Those dollars may not be as high as before, but those contracts will still be generous.

I'm not suggesting they have to take the NHL's cap system, which is riddled with holes. I'm saying they should call for an NFL style cap. Call the league's bluff.

After all, pro-league pundits proclaim that's what Bettman and the owners are seeking, an NFL-style cap, so why not give it to them, but demand the same things: non-guaranteed contracts with prorated bonuses, renegotiation rights and UFA at 24, and a revenue sharing system where the home team splits the gate with the visitors 60-40.

If they made that demand tomorrow, the owners would turn whiter than Casper the Friendly Ghost. The players would have them, given the owners painted themselves into a tight corner with their cost certainty demands.

There'd be no way they could refuse, not without looking stupid. Imagine the headlines: "NHL owners reject players hard cap proposals". Good luck trying to sell an impasse to the NLRB after that.

As for the owners, I cannot believe they're trying to sell a hard cap as salvation for small market clubs when the revenue sharing plans, as leaked to TSN the day prior to their rejection of the players December proposal, suggests drawing from a pool of playoff revenues. That would do nothing to help small market clubs.

Playoff revenues are considerably smaller than regular season revenues and if small market clubs make the playoffs, they'd have to pay into the pool but wouldn't be entitled to draw from it.

The ONLY way a hard cap system will work is with a better revenue sharing scheme, but the league doesn't seem interested. Surely to heavens the small market owners can see that this isn't going to help them? Come on, they're smart businessmen, they didn't make their millions by being stupid.

The only logical conclusion I can reach is that this isn't about revenue sharing or bringing about league parity, but rather to bolster franchise values and to make more money at the expense of the players, in essence, to turn the clock back twenty years.

Edmonton Oilers honchos Cal Nichols and Pat Laforge don't strike me as stupid men, and I'm sure their intentions upon buying the Oilers were civic minded, to keep an NHL franchise, once the jewel in the NHL crown, in Edmonton.

But surely they can see that this is a farce, that they're not going to improve under a salary cap system, that they're not going to get the money to make the team more competitive, that they won't be able to bid for marquee free agent talent, that they'll still be juggling budgets in five years time, that barring a miracle their club won't become a Cup contender.

No, I think there's something else at work here. They know how this is going to play out. The intent here isn't to make the Oilers competitive, just to increase their worth and the money going toward Nichols, Laforge and the rest of their owners.

After all, sports is a business and ultimately you wanna make money at this business. The Oilers owners and those of other struggling franchises can't use those teams as write-offs forever. At some point, they wanna see a bigger return on their investment.

Oilers fans will still come out, hell, they've proven that over the past several seasons. And who knows, maybe, just maybe, lightning might strike and their beloved team could, for one triumphant playoff run, find themselves in the Stanley Cup finals.

The fans in Edmonton will stay loyal, but I can't help but wonder how the current Oilers ownership will reward that loyalty. By keeping the team in Edmonton? Nice, but at some point, those fans are also gonna want a return on their investment. They're gonna want a winner, or at least a reasonable facsimile. The Oilers can only trade on the rapidly fading memories of Gretzky and the glory years of the 1980s for only so long.

I'm not trying to beat up on the Oilers. Hey, I WANT them to stay in Edmonton, but I also want them to have a chance. Their crappy draft history aside, I wanna see a system in place that can ensure, if the team is well managed and coached, that it can have a real shot for Cup contention.

I'm just not seeing it in the league's offers. Brian Burke's system, centered around a luxury tax system, still makes the most sense to me, and I cannot for the life of me understand how the NHL's proposed cost certainty, a hard, inflexible cap with next to nothing for revenue sharing, is a better solution.

"Oh, but Spector", I hear my critics say, "the lowered salaries will make it easier for those small markets to compete because player salaries will be more affordable."

As Arnold Rimmer once said, "Wrong, wrong, absolutely brimming over with wrongability!"

The league is proposing a cap "floor" believed to be somewhere between $32 million and $34 million.

So how, pray, can the Oilers make a go of it if they were struggling with a $33 million payroll last season? And if the players 24% rollback is incorporated into the next deal, the Oilers would have to spend UP to make the cap to the tune of $10 million bucks.

The Carolina Hurricanes payroll last season was $36 million and they sucked. How will they improve by spending less? The Phoenix Coyotes spent $39 million last season and missed the playoffs. How will they magically become better with a $32 million payroll?

If they've got smart management, it might work, and decent coaching, it's possible. But wait a minute, why didn't they spend more wisely, draft better, and make shrewder trades under the last CBA? Is the NHL suggesting a hard cap will suddenly make the management of these teams smarter?

Conversely, the Pittsburgh Penguins were barely getting by with a $23.4 million payroll, now they've gotta jack that up by another ten million. Hey, wait a minute, I thought they couldn't afford that kind of payroll? What gives here? Why would they agree to a system that would make them spend MORE money?

The Nashville Predators had the lowest payroll at $21 million, and now they'd have to spend over $10 million which supposedly they don't have to meet that mandatory cap "floor". Why would their ownership bless that kind of system?

And if you don't think the marquee players won't get the highest salaries, guess again. None of these aforementioned teams will be bidding for guys like Martin St. Louis or Jarome Iginla when they hit UFA age, nor will they be swinging trades for players of that calibre.

Granted, those salaries probably won't be as expensive as they were under the previous CBA, but if anyone honestly believes those guys will haul in less than $4 million in their next contracts, I suggest you stop messing around with solvents.

No, it'll be the rank and file players who'll get hit the worst under the league's proposal. Guys like Pierre Dagenais, Brian Pothier, and Mike Commodore, who were looking forward to paydays between $600 - $900K per season for their services - which also sparked their questioning the PA's stance last fall - are instead going to be getting a league minimum of $350K, with no wiggle room for negotiation.

It'll be take it or leave it, boys, so what'll it be? Jet set around in the NHL on the league minimum or riding the busses in the minors?

Yeah, they'll be really happy under that kind of system.

And I can safely guarantee that, if the league gets its hard cap, at some point within the life of the next CBA, a big market club will find a creatively legal way to skirt that cap to sign a player they really want, and there won't be a damn thing the league or the small markets can do about it.

Remember, a lot of these guys were their own worst enemies under the previous CBA, and I see no reason to believe they'll all play by the rules under a new CBA. Sure, they're united now (or so we're led to believe, thanks to their gag order), but even if they get everything they want, one of those owners will blade the others with a cap busting deal, and that'll create another nasty mess to be cleaned up.

Ah, I hear you say, I'm just being hypothetical and have nothing to back up my statements.

Yes, these are hypothetical scenarios, but they're based on what I've seen covering the NHL since 1998. Hey, if you don't wanna believe me, fine, no problem. Truthfully, I hope I'm proven wrong...but I know in my heart I won't be.

Ultimately, I just can't believe that the owners are willing to be so damned inflexible, after the players have compromised on everything else except a hard cap, that they're willing to jeopardize the futures of their clubs and the league.

Rest assured, gang, the NHL will not recover from the fallout of a lost season.

The league was on the fringes of the US sports market prior to the lockout, and its invisibility not only demonstrates it's not missed by American sports fans, but guarantees it'll disappear off the charts if the owners and Gary Bettman allow this lockout to go into next season.

Hey, I wanna see a system to help struggling markets too, but what the league is selling is pure snake oil, and its hard nosed desire to put the players under its thumb at the expense of a season, at the expense of its waning popularity, at the expense of TV contracts and merchandising, and at the expense of its future is just not smart business.

It's myopic, it's stupid and it's just plain wrong.

Yeah, the fans in Canada will come back, but I'll hazard a guess there won't be quite as many as before, and those who do return - including the small but faithful corps of American fans - will be jaded. They'll look to the end of the next CBA with dread, knowing there will be another battle, and possibly another loss of a season or two.

As for the American market, too many fans there not only aren't aware of this lockout, they could care less. They'd probably get pissed off if the league comes back interferes with their watching the World Series of Poker or ten pin bowling.

In ancient times, King Pyrrhus "tried to create a kingdom of Sicily and lower Italy, but his victories against the Romans were so costly he had to withdraw. His remark 'Another such victory and I shall be ruined' gave name to the term 'Pyrrhic victory' for a victory obtained at too great a cost."

That's what Gary Bettman and the owners are facing. They may get their way, either through the courts (highly unlikely) or by waiting out the players, but in the end, their victory is going to cost them in the long term.

And everyone - owner, player, agent, fan - are going to pay.



Friday, 28 January 2005, 6:45 AM: NHLPA Senior Director Ted Saskin issued a statement following last night's talks, once again citing "philosophical differences" and dousing the hopes of hockey fans everywhere that a settlement may be at hand.

"alpine medic" also sent me the following blurb from the Detroit News:

"The NHL presented the players' association a framework of a proposal that included a team-by-team salary cap up to $42 million with a luxury tax. Team payrolls would be linked to revenues at a 54 percent rate.

The players' association was unimpressed and displeased. It has been adamant about not accepting a salary cap."

7:00 am: Terry Koshan of the Toronto Sun sums things up thusly: "it's fairly simple to conclude that no progress + no talks planned = no hope for a season."

7:15 am: Robin Brownlee of the Edmonton Sun reports Oilers forward and player rep Steve Staios' "optimism has dwindled" and he's headed for Sweden to play out the season. Staios is convinced the league and owners are "willing to shut down the season and not negotiate off their hard-line position.''

Bruce Garrioch of the Ottawa Sun quotes Chicago Blackhawks forward Matthew Barnaby: "(A)s far as I was concerned the season is d-e-a-d ... dead. I didn't think any more of it because it's not happening.

"Let's put it this way: It would be a shock to me if we played hockey this year."

7:20 am: Allan Woods of the National Post reports details on the league's proposal to the NHLPA yesterday are sketchy but it's believed to have included "a team-by-team salary cap and no revenue sharing."

That seems to conflict with last night's report of no luxury tax. Hopefully we'll get more details as the day progresses.

7:30 am: John Dellapina of the New York Daily News suggests things may not be quite so dire. Dellapina cites a source "close to the talks" as saying of last night's outcome: "That doesn't mean nothing further will be scheduled or that something couldn't be scheduled right away."

Dellapina also reports Ted Saskin and Trevor Linden were to meet with NHLPA honcho Bob Goodenow to decide whether to come back with demanded modifications or simply reject the entire notion. The latter course of action almost certainly would lead to a swift cancellation of the season by NHL commissioner Gary Bettman, who, like Goodenow, did not attend last night's meeting.

So it's possible, albeit remote, that the PA could come back with a counter-offer following their rejection of yesterday's NHL offer. That would explain both sides still keeping things close to the vest this morning.

If we start hearing more comments, however, from either side later today or over the weekend, it could be a different story.

7:40 am: Ken Campbell of the Toronto Star reports conflicting info coming out of the talks. TSN and Sportsnet and CP all reported the league tabled an offer last night but Campbell cites other sources claiming various proposals were discussed but none tabled.

Campbell also cited an unnamed NHL GM suggesting an offer could be made to the players as early as today.

7:45 am: TSN's Bob McKenzie also claims a deal wasn't proposed to the players last night but various concepts were put forth. McKenzie also suggests the PA should demand the league put forth their best proposal which they can then put to a vote amongst their membership.

That's about all I can come up with for now. I'll have to check a few of the subscription sites later on today, and hopefully we'll have more info as the day wears on.

Obviously there is conflicting reports as to what really went on yesterday. Some claim the league offered no luxury tax, some claim no revenue sharing, which makes absolutely no sense at all for their "hard cap" system to work for the small market franchises.

Stay tuned...


Thursday, 27 January 2005, 11:PM: As expected, both sides met yesterday in New York for about five hours, wrapping up just after 9 pm EST.

Prior to the meeting's end, rumours were flying fast and furious as to what was discussed or proposed.

The Score reported a deal was proposed with a 32 million soft cap and a $45 million hard cap. A luxury tax would kick in over 32 million and the 24% rollback the players offered in December was also believed included.

Over at Blueshirt Bulletin, they had several links from different New York area pundits. One suggested a soft cap would be set at around $38 million to $40 million and a hard cap at $50 million, which has been kicked around for several days now in the press, but no acknowledgement yet from either side if that's the case.

Another suggested that, in addition to the players 24% rollback being part of the deal, the UFA eligibility age might be lowered to 29 and possible alterations might be made to the entry-level system.

Sportsnet.ca meanwhile claimed sources telling John Davidson the league was making a proposal that would introduce both a soft and hard cap as previously noted over the past several days.

It's been widely rumoured the league was prepared to make a proposal to the players today but the NHL refuses to acknowledge this.

I also received rumours of a potential deal from a very reliable source, claiming the following:

"There are a bunch of signs that point to the dispute ending.

Sign #1:
It started last Friday after Trevor Linden said that there's probably no hope for a settlement. From what I’m told by my source, lots of players called in Linden and asked for one thing: a soft cap around $40 M with a luxury tax on the back end. Many of the players said this would be good with them -- be damned what Goodenow says. At that time, Linden allegedly called Bettman and said that he wanted to talk a deal.

Sign #2:
Each week the league sends out an email to each team discussing where they're at with things. This week the email had a new twist. Teams were encouraged to get their PR people in place, have equipment ordered, and visas in order.

Sign #3:
There was the rules committee meeting yesterday that just happened to coincide with the NHL and NHLPA summit. Why would the league care about rule changes for the next year unless they were actually planning on playing? "

My source claims to have gotten this info from reliable sources, and having known this individual for some time I have no reason to doubt the validity of their sources.

Just remember, my source is pointing to "signs" of a possible end to this dispute.

More ominously, TSN reported the meeting ended tonight with no immediate plans for future discussions. No one seems to know why, although hopefully we'll find out more in the morning, which I'll update first thing as the reports come in.

Sorry for the brevity of these reports over the past couple of days, but things are happening fast and furious. Whether this is a good sign or not remains to be seen. Cross your fingers, hockey fans, and I'll post more up on Friday morning...

UPDATE: 11:25 PM AST: Not looking good, folks. TSN reported the league made a proposal made up of a team by team salary cap and NO luxury tax, which was rejected by the PA.

If that's the case, no wonder there's no further talks planned. So much for the "soft cap, hard cap" hybrid rumours we've heard. By the looks of things, the league is still refusing to compromise and that'll effectively end any further discussion from the PA.

Have to wait until tomorrow morning to get more info. I'll post it then...


Wednesday, January 26, 2005. 8:15 PM: As I write this (Tuesday evening) the latest meeting between the NHL and NHLPA has ended, with both sides refusing to comment on what was discussed, other than to say they'll meet again later this week.

Whether that means Thursday, Friday or Saturday remains to be seen, but they will meet to talk again.

There's been precious little tonight about what was talked about. It was already known the league was not going to make a new proposal to the players, although it was rumoured for days leading up to Wednesday's meeting that the league would do so.

Instead, NHL VP Bill Daly said his side would be continuing talks with the players regarding issues discussed at last week's meeting.

Word did leak out that the NHLPA requested New Jersey Devils GM Lou Lamoriello join the talks, which is interesting when one considers "Lou Lam's" hardnosed contract negotiation style earned him few fans amongst the players over the years.

Still, TSN's website reports Lamoriello is respected by the NHLPA and apparently seen as a deal-maker.

Tongues were wagging prior to yesteday's meeting over Pittsburgh Penguins owner and captain Mario Lemieux showing up in Toronto. Both sides denied he was involved in the discussions and was merely meeting his buddy, Toronto Maple Leafs enforcer Tie Domi. Still, given Domi's close ties to the union hierarchy, some pundits suggest he and Lemieux were involved in "back-door" talks to add their opinions to the talks.

Other than that, there's very little to write about.

And it could mean that, in this instance, silence is golden.

If both sides are keeping the lid shut tight on this round of talks, not even pausing to talk for long with the press, it could be as some observers suggest that the two sides want to keep the talks on a cordial level and not allow any potential verbal mis-steps to be blown up by the press.

10:10 PM: Sportsnet claims a source within the talks said there was "no progress" made, as the league again refuses to move off their demand for a hard cap.

It's obvious the cap is the main sticking point. If the two sides can resolve this, everything else - arbitration, lowering the UFA eligibility age, entry-level bonuses - should fall into place rather quickly.

Next meeting is either Thursday or Friday, as the league has some work to do internally before it happens.

10:30 PM: Latest speculation has the next meeting to be held in New York. Y'know, while both sides kept the lid on where they'd be meeting in Toronto (fooling the media into believing it was the Sutton Hotel), and will likely do so in New York, it seem odd that, if they want total secrecy, they'd hold their meetings in two of the biggest big market cities.

If I wanted to keep things quiet, I'd hold the meeting in Columbus or Nashville or Raleigh. Now I'm not knocking those cities, but to me it would make sense to hold the meeting in one of the small market cities away from the media glare.

Thursday, 27 January, 6:30 am: Oh, seems there was a meeting of NHL coaches yesterday to discuss changes in the game whenever the league finally returns to action.

Forgive me if I'm not overly impressed, considering most of these coaches have been responsible for introducing and perpetuating the obstructionist "trapping" systems that have sucked the life out of the game and contributed to the decline of its popularity in the United States.

They've agreed it's "time to take the shackles off the players". How lovely. What a novel idea! Now, if they'd only thought of this TEN FREAKIN' YEARS AGO, the NHL popularity wouldn't have declined so much!

6:45 am: Tom Benjamin of Canuckscorner.com has an interesting synopsis on yesterday's meeting and what may have been discussed and the motivations of both sides.

6:55 am: Give it up to Robyn Regehr of the Calgary Flames who questioned the motivation of Edmonton Oilers co-owner Cal Nichols dire threats of folding or moving the club if the league wavered from its hard-line cost certainty demand, as well as the timing of Nichols' announcement.

"I think Gary Bettman's been marching those guys out there all through his lockout," Regehr said of the NHL commissioner.

"You had Hurricanes owner Peter Karmanos in Carolina saying his comments and now Cal Nichols saying comments. You've got guys coming out at strategic times, I believe, trying to swing public favour.

"I think Gary's behind all of that and everything's calculated by the league office."

That may well be, but I also think Nichols' statement was the first real sign we've seen that there are divisions on the owners side over the direction of this lockout.

7:00 am: Bruce Garrioch of the Ottawa Sun backs up Sportsnet's claim last night of no progress in yesterday's talks. He cites "sources" claiming both sides remain far apart over - what else - a salary cap.

7:05 AM: Larry Brooks of the NY Post claims he's learned of numerous phone calls to Gary Bettman over the past three days from "moderate Board (of Governors) members" urging the Commissioner to accept the best deal possible to save the season.

Who knows what's really going on behind the scenes with the owners? Their gag order has kept us all in the dark. Again, I stress that Nichols' comments yesterday are the only substantial evidence thus far that there may be divisions between owners like Nichols who want a hard cap and those who want to get the best deal possible.

Brooks also claims it "appears" the league may be willing to adopt a soft cap system that would turn into a hard cap once a certain level is reached, but what's of concern here if this is true is whether or not the players actually will agree to such a system. They've been adamant against any form of hard cap thus far, and the only way I see them backing off that stance is if the hard cap were set at, say, $50 million or higher. That seems far-fetched coming from the league, but then again, there was Nichols' comments yesterday....

7:10 am: Stan Fischler of MSG Network is actually optimistic for the first time since the lockout was imposed. The addition of Lou Lamoriello into the talks has Fischler seeing "a sliver of hope" in the proceedings.

7:15 am: Well, gotta shut this down as I have to get to my day job. If anything new comes up, I'll report it for tomorrow's Soapbox. As we can see, there is little "inside info" coming from the media, apart from claims of "no progress" from a couple of media sources, which likely mean they have no real idea what's happening.

Hopefully we'll find out more if both sides meet later today.


The pundits report, I respond, you decide. And awa-a-y-y we go!

Stan Fischler, MSG Network.

Nobody has produced a more sensible commentary on the labor mess than Kerry Fraser. The vet ref says, "The Game needs to survive. The NHL is the game. There's no better league. If the league is in jeopardy, The Game is in jeopardy." Fraser cares. Does Bob Goodenow?

Does Gary Bettman and the team owners? After all, they're the ones locking out the players at a time when the NHL's popularity in the all-important US market is at its lowest. When your business is struggling, you don't engage in a labour war with your employees, particularly when the employees are your product.

Brendan Shanahan says players have given him a warm reception for his better-the-game committee and its ideas. But some NHL folks wonder about Shanny. One labels the Red Wing "a politician" who's trying to one-up the league's own attempts at fixing the sport.

Like the NHL has done such a great job of "fixing the sport" over the past ten years!

Phil Esposito added his name to the growing numbers who cannot figure why NHLPA members have rejected a Cap. (Hint: Bob Goodenow painted himself in a corner two years ago and never found the paint-remover.) "For the first time in my life," says Espo, "I don't agree with the players. They are wrong. I don't understand what the big deal is with a Salary Cap." (Hey, Phil, neither does most of the civilized world!). "It might take away the ten-eleven million dollar player," adds Espo, "but the revenues don't justify him."

There really isn't a big deal as long as it's a soft cap, which is essentially what a luxury or payroll tax is, which was proposed by the players. The problem with the hard cap the NHL is pursuing is that it isn't flexible like that of the NFL.

The most fatuous argument proffered by NHLPA types is that the league is trying to "break" the Association. Truth is the "union" has in both subtle and not-so-subtle moves been - in the view of some observers -effectively "destroying" the NHL for a decade. Now the league is hitting back and this amazes the players, who figured nobody would stand up to them.

So lemme get this straight: the NHLPA played by the rules of the last CBA, which was mid-wifed by Gary Bettman along with Bob Goodenow, and which contained the most restrictive free agency of all the major pro sports leagues in North America, and yet, because some of the owners couldn't control their wild spending, the NHLPA has been "destroying" the NHL?

What's been "destroying" the NHL, along with the aforementioned irresponsible spending practices of several teams, was the abysmal product on the ice, thanks to uncalled obstruction masquarading as defensive skill, over-inflated goalie equipment, and a too-rapid and poorly planned expansion policy that diluted the product.

Trevor Linden naively talks about being "insulted" over NHL owners wanting to run their business without player interference. The real insults were directed by Linden's buddies (Robert Esche, et. al.) at Gary Bettman, Ed Snider, Jeremy Jacobs and Bill Wirtz. As Don (Grapes) Cherry perceptively notes, "You don't call guys like Snider, Wirtz and Jacobs liars and cheats. By attacking them on a personal level, it just makes them madder." Dare Esche insult Snider to his face? Not while that fat paycheck was rolling in for the goalie!

On this, I agree with Fischler. A few players have put their feet well into their mouths by pitching insults at Bettman and the owners, but it must be remembered they were a tiny minority. Most of the players have kept their opinions of the NHL hierarchy to themselves.

NHLPAers are talking up Europe for next season. Subtract a dozen or so big contracts, which would be available for a precious few superstars, and there's no real money there. Furthermore, European amenities -- compared to the NHL - range from mediocre to abysmal. Who would be silly enough to play for peanuts overseas when - even with a Hard Cap -- good, big-league dough is available in North America?

Every week, Fischler runs down NHL'ers going to play in Europe, and every week, I have to point out where he's wrong.

If the only reason the players were going to Europe was for the money, there wouldn't be over 350 of them currently there now, let alone possibly another 50 poised to join them by month's end if there is no resolution to the lockout.

Most of those guys are over there because - surprise! - they're Europeans, so getting to play in front of family and friends in their own countries is a rare treat.

The prime reason why they and their North American counterparts are doing so is to do what they do best: play hockey. They want to continue the familiar routine of the game, rather than sit at home answering boring questions from reporters and wondering if there will be a season at all. It keeps them occupied and in game-shape should a season-saving agreement be reached.

As for European amenities, they're no worse than those found in Junior hockey or riding the buses in the minors. There's a bit of culture shock, but that's eventually overcome for most over time.

Team loyalty is obsolete in today's pro game but it was different in the 1920s. Roger Godin makes this point in his book, "Before The Stars," which deals with early pro hockey in Minnesota. "Moose Goheen and Tony Conroy (both stars) were recruited to play pro hockey in Canada," says Godin. "They decided to remain in St. Paul, despite the potential to make far more money across the border. By staying, they undoubtedly drove their team to the Fellowes Cup finals in 1922 and 1923." In the NHL, team loyalty went out the window with the advent of the NHLPA!

Yeah, things were so much better before the NHLPA. Players signed reserve clauses which bound them to their teams forever or until their rights were traded away. If they refused to play hurt or dared to question a coaching decision, they would be banished to the minors, in most cases never to see the NHL again. They were paid peanuts, in fact, many had to take menial part-time summer jobs to supplement their incomes. Meanwhile, the owners cleaned up and got rich at their expense. And they received no compensation if injury forced them into premature retirement, and received very little, if anything, in pensions.

No wonder they were so loyal to their teams... they did whatever massah told them to do, or else!

When brat kids don't get everything they want from parents, they throw tantrums, and when NHL players don't have it their way, they diss The Commish. And anonymous speakers are really brave and brilliant, aren't they?

Like the ones Stan cites in his columns, claiming they hate Goodenow and want to play under a cap.

Another reason why a Salary Cap will be mandatory for the NHL to survive: Ottawa's most overrated, overpaid center Bryan Smolinski.

Which can also be cited as a reason why there should be a payroll tax, to prevent teams from overspending on middling talent.

Have you noticed that agents who once wouldn't go near a Cap are now talking freely about one in various forms?

Who would they be? I've yet to see or hear of anyone of them doing so.

Actually, the "union" was talking Cap as far back as 1992. As part of the just-completed CBA deal then, the NHLPA agreed to support a work group that would hammer out a Cap. Bob Swados was the Sabres' counsel and recalls the agreement. "It called for a committee to be appointed by the two sides to negotiate a new deal along the lines of the NBA cap," says Swados. "There was no historic view or policy that the cap is 'poison.'" Interestingly, Goodenow turned it into poison!

And in 1994, Gary Bettman wasn't of the opinion that a luxury tax was "unworkable" when he proposed it back then. Interestingly, Bettman now believes it is "unworkable"!

Don'tcha love how Trevor Linden becomes a saint for leaving his ventriloquist long enough to make a phone call and attend two meetings.

Pretty sad that Stan can't get off his "anti-NHLPA" rants to even give Linden praise for trying to work out a deal. It almost seems like Stan wants the season to die.

This from the National Post's Mark Spector: "The players never quite appreciated their salaries until they got their calculator out; added up two seasons of salary, and realized there was a time when they would have played two seasons for one-tenth of that number."

Yeah, those dumb players, always taking things for granted. Thank Jeebus the owners are such fine, upstanding people that they never ever took the money for granted that they spent on salaries, keeping them under control all these years, spending responsibly, looking out for their small market peers....

Brian Hayward, former NHL goalie and now broadcaster for the Anaheim Mighty Ducks:

"What Goodenow should do is tell them that there is going to be a salary cap of some kind. And that waiting until next year is just going to hurt the players. There's $2 billion in revenue now. That figure is going to go down if there's no season."

The problem here is Bettman and his inner circle have thus far remained adamant in their demands - and that's what they've been, not negotiations, but demands - for an inflexible team-by-team hard cap between $33 million - $38 million. If the league actually came forward with something resembling a more flexible system, the PA might actually have some interest.

"I was in the union, but that ended when I retired. I've run businesses since then, and I know that you can't succeed when 75 percent of your revenue is going to salaries. I see how it hurts the Ducks' organization. There's a lot they could do in community relations, in staff salaries. But when most of the money goes out the door to players, it puts a limit on everything else you can do."

Nobody forced the Ducks to spend $10 million on Paul Kariya or over $5 million on Teemu Selanne. Nobody forced them to plunk down $10 million on Sergei Fedorov, $6.5 million on Vaclav Prospal, or $4.5 million on J.S. Giguere. They did it of their own volition, refusing to use the leverage they had under the last CBA.

As for the league's supposed losses, they haven't been touting that quite so much since some folks either conducted their own audits or took the time to actually read the Levitt Report and discovered it wasn't the "super-audit" Bettman claimed it to be.

"The (Union's proposed) rollback," Hayward said, "only applied to players who had contracts at the time. I think the Ducks have about eight guys under contract. There are a ton of free agents out there and they weren't involved in it.

They've actually got 18 players under contract for this season. And don't forget, under that rollback, free agents can only seek to draw salaries comparable to those which are rolled back over the PA's proposed three year period, rather than what they were prior to the rollback.

"A luxury tax won't work, because the game will still be affected by the bad decisions of some teams. I don't think the union offered a long-term solution. You need a cap. I like the fact the league has proposed a salary floor, too. And the cap should adjust and go up when revenues go up. But the players have to know that the longer we go without an agreement, the money will go down."

Unfortunately, the league's last proposal included a revenue-sharing system which was to be based on playoff revenues to be distributed to the bottom ten teams, meaning if a small market club which could use the money makes the playoffs, they pay into the pool, but cannot draw off it. And if your club doesn't finish in the bottom ten teams but still misses the playoffs, as the Edmonton Oilers did last season, they wouldn't be entitled to a dime.

Under a luxury tax system, those teams who overspend have to contribute a tax to a revenue pool which would then be distributed to teams that are in genuine need of money based on their revenues, not on where they place in the standings. Now granted, the players proposed system had little "teeth", but if the league would agree to a dollar for dollar or a two-for one tax system, that could turn into a deep pool that could be of real use to truly struggling franchises, whilst still allowing big market clubs to spend whatever they want.

Tell me again how a luxury tax system won't work?

"We need 30 viable markets to have a legitimate major sport," Hayward said. "Players sometimes say, well, there's too many teams. I find that incredible. A player should want the maximum number of jobs out there. The average NHL career is eight years. A player doesn't want to spend two of them in Europe for half of his NHL salary. Off the record, some of them tell you they know a cap is necessary.

The players saying there are too many teams are right. Sure, the fringe players, who know they'll never make over a million per season and are lucky to make $500K-$600K, will gladly work for a cap... provided, of course, that cap doesn't drop the median salary back down to $450K, in which case, those players will have cut their own throats by taking a cap, since few will see salaries over $500K again.

"The players are the ones who should tell Bob Goodenow to make a deal this week. He works for them."

So what's stopping them? Don't tell me Goodenow has them all browbeaten into submission. You can't tell me guys like Jeremy Roenick, Chris Chelios, Scott Stevens, Mark Messier, Steve Yzerman, Tie Domi, or Darcy Tucker would keep quiet if they felt Goodenow was leading them off to galloping ruin, now do you? You can't tell me the real team leaders, players who are respected amongst their peers, would toe the party line if they all disagreed with the direction Goodenow was taking them.

I'm sure there are some players out there who aren't happy with the direction Goodenow is taking them, but they're obviously in a minority. If the majority really wanted Goodenow to accept a cap, they'd have risen up and told him so and we'd be watching hockey right now.

Kevin Paul Dupont, MSNBC:

Look, one way or another this thing will be resolved, and the owners will have achieved what they wanted - cost certainty. It's time for the players to realize that, and do something about it.

They are, they're trying to get the best deal they can and save the season. That's why Linden kick-started negotiations between the two sides after weeks of silence and the clock winding down on the '04-'05 season.

Some knew it up front. Some have learned it along the way. More and more are beginning to understand it now, after a holiday season of sitting home and hearing spouses and in-laws wonder how in the world a union, one that averages more than $1.8 million in annual pay per man, can't figure out a way to get everybody back in the game. For the players who grew up in blue-collar families (read: the vast majority), the stares they received from relatives over the holidays must have been icier than a Gordie Howe glare.

Unless it was explained to them that the $1.8 million isn't "per man", but rather an average salary, and that figure is skewed by the high salaries of a minority of players. The truth worth is the median salary, which is worth just under $1 million, which still seems like a lot of money, until it's realized that the league's proposal would cut the median salary down to $450K and suddenly, the family realized they might see Daddy's take-home pay chopped by a considerable amount.

Hey, I'm sure there are players who believe the owners will ultimately get their cost certainty, but the majority still believe they can win this. As I noted yesterday, the players are by nature competitive, and as long as they believe they can still win this, they'll fight.

And if there's glares from the blue-collar families most of these players grew up in, it's probably because their son didn't shell out as much for Christmas presents as he did the year before.

There are, without an official tally, at least a million variations that could make up a reasonable, fair, even lucrative salary cap that would serve as the basis of a new CBA. The NBA figured it out. The NFL figured it out. Hundreds of players in those leagues, many of them multimillionaires, get up everyday not even noticing the invisible fiscal handcuffs they're wearing. Hard to figure, but even with those shackles they are able to drive their Mercedes and state-of-Nebraska-sized SUVs to practice. A whole bunch of them get up everyday and kiss the ground at every red light on their way to the bank.

But again, the difference is the NBA has a flexible cap called a luxury tax, whilst the NFL's "hard cap" is in reality a flexible cap that still allows teams to spend over that cap by an average amount of $5 million per season. The NHL is seeking the first true "hard cap",with no flexibility, and that's the sticking point.

I think the players are wrong to resist an NFL style cap, but realistically there is no way NHL owners will agree to a system of prorated bonuses, renegotiations of existing contracts and unrestricted free agency at 24.

Ultimately, it might be left for a court, or courts, to determine if the two sides have bargained in good faith. Let's leave that to the legal experts to decipher.

It might be, but there are a lot of legal obstacles in the way.

There was a time not long ago when NHL players took great pride in their courage, their honesty, their will to face any challenge. In the last few months, a handful of union members have expressed publicly their opinion that a cap might not be such a bad thing. New Jersey forward John Madden was one of them. Steve Thomas was another.

In both cases, Mssrs. Madden and Thomas promptly retracted what they said. What happened? The NHLPA took them to the woodshed, told them to recant, and they obediently did as told - spoke the unionspeak. How sad.

How juvenile. How misguided.

And the NHL's gag order on their owners is a sign of maturity?

If the players can't be bold off the ice, and dare to think differently, and own up to what they say, is it any wonder that the game on the ice similarly lacks courage and conviction?

OK, the quality of the game has deteriorated, but I would never suggest the players lack courage and conviction on the ice. These are guys who play through injuries that would sideline athletes in the NBA, NFL and MLB, who'll sacrifice their bodies to make or break up a play, and who'll go through a wall for their teammates. Question their convictions in this labour dispute if you want, but never question their convictions on the ice.

NHL commissioner Gary Bettman has little choice but to leave the table with an "idiot-proof" collective bargaining agreement.
Because of them, and not because of the players, Bettman has little choice but to leave the table with an "idiot-proof" CBA. The NHLPA's standard response to that has been that it is not in the business to cure the league of its bad businessmen. True. But like war, there is collateral damage that comes with the fix, and in this war the players will suffer the collateral damage.

There is no "idiot-proof" solution. I guarantee that if the NHL gets its supposed "hard cap", within three years of its implementation you'll have teams finding legally creative ways to circumvent that cap. If you want to "idiot-proof" the league, get rid of the idiots!

What would be the consequence if the owners didn't leave with cost certainty? That's easy. They could book Lockout III just a few years down the road - precisely where they were headed if they took the bait the NHLPA offered with its 24-percent payroll rollback. All of which would turn what in 2005 is a fiasco into a guaranteed total disaster. Each day that goes by now only erodes whatever credibility and fan base remain in the NHL.

And you think the players won't book "Lockout III" after this one if they get cost certainty rammed down their throats? Puh-lease, don't be naive! The owners and the league should be working with the NHLPA, not against it. All that's being accomplished in this standoff is a continuation of the mistrust the players have toward the owners that has been going on for years.

If no deal is struck prior to the scheduled start of '05-'06, the league could consider imposing work conditions (salary cap included) and welcoming one and all to report to their respective clubs. The union would race to courts all over North America in opposition, and there is no telling how long it would take the courts to decide, or how they'd rule.

There is even a chance that an American court would rule differently than a Canadian court, or that a court in one province would rule opposite a decision in another province. Golly, what fun, huh?

And even if the courts ruled in favour of the NHL, there's the little matter of immigration law, in which both Canada and the United States prohibit issuing work visas to replacement workers (go to this link and scroll down to "Green Carded")

What should be clear to the players now, after league bosses spelling it out to Linden directly and in person, is that this is no longer a league-union matter. It's far more personal, and that is precisely how the players should interpret it. It is a league-player matter. It's time for the players to decide, as individuals, with a voice and hand in their destiny, what they want to do. It's for them to figure and act upon what they want, which may or may not be what the union is telling them to want.

Here's a sobering thought: perhaps the majority of them already have. Maybe, just maybe, the majority still support Goodenow and are making their voices heard.



HINT OF DESPERATION FROM THE LEAGUE? TSN and the Globe and Mail reported yesterday NHL VP Bill Daly remains optimistic of future meetings between the league and NHLPA in the near future.

But if we go by NHLPA president Trevor Linden's remarks last Friday, the season is over because the two sides remain far apart due to the league's unwillingness to move off their hard-cap demand.

So what's the deal with Daly? How can he feel optimistic when Linden, whose efforts brought the two sides together for the first time in months for face-to-face talks, believes the season is lost?

Conventional wisdom suggests Daly is merely engaged in PR "spin" to blunt Linden's gloomy proclamation and attempt to set the league into a more positive light in the eyes of fans.

It could also be to buttress the league's case for an impasse in the now-unlikely event they pursue that route before the respective labour boards in Canada and the United States. By maintaining optimism, it could make the league appear as though it was trying to bargain in good faith while the players were not.

That of course is laughable, given that thus far in this labour dispute the league has done nothing of the sort, refusing to negotiate or make concessions and only reacting to NHLPA proposals to dismiss them out of hand.

Still, one could also muse that Daly honestly believes the two sides were close to getting a framework of a deal in place during last week's meetings.

Indeed, according to various sources (the most reliable being this one from Pulitzer Prize nominee and Hockey Hall of Fame journalist Russ Conway on January 21st), midway through the second day of talks both sides appeared to be making headway, but after Daly spoke to NHL Commissioner Gary Bettman via phone during a break in the talks, he reverted to the league's hard-line stance of a hard cap or nothing.

That effectively finished the negotiations for Linden, who felt the league's side was attempting to push him around.

One has to wonder, then, if Daly subsequently told Bettman how close they were to getting a deal in place before the Commish demanded the hard line bomb be dropped on the talks.

It might be reading too much into this, but remember, Daly and his NHLPA rival, Ted Saskin, emerged standing shoulder-to-shoulder following the first day of talks to proclaim cautious optimism. Given that both men had spent much of the lockout chucking verbal spitballs at each other via the media, this was significant.

When both men emerged from the second day of talks, they went their seperate ways immediately and addressed the press in seperate press conferences, Daly face to face and Saskin via telephone as he was on his way to his mother's funeral on Friday.

As noted by one reporter, the pained expressions on both their faces seemed to hint at how close they might have been to getting a deal started.

Perhaps Daly believes the NHL overplayed its hand, passed that message on to Bettman and the owners, and now he may be trying to convince the NHLPA that they're still willing to talk.

Well, the last part certainly seems to be the case, judging by Daly's comments.

Are they legit or merely for show? Does the league now believe they were close to blowing a favourable deal and are now attempting to make amends? Or is this just for fan consumption?

We'll find out soon enough.

NOTE: Late Monday came word Daly had contacted Ted Saskin to request another "small group discusssion" with the same group as last week, and Saskin agreed. The PA Assistant Director wouldn't divulge date, time and location, probably to avoid the circus atmosphere that occurred last week when the location of those meetings were leaked to the press.

So it seems Daly and the league really do believe the two sides may be closer to a deal than they were telling the media.

Whether or not that translates into a season-saving deal remains to be seen. Stay tuned, this soap opera apparently isn't over yet.

MORE SPECULATION ON A POSSIBLE NEW LEAGUE OFFER: Damien Cox of the Toronto Star, who has been one of the saner pundits covering this locker, suggests that the NHLPA's gloomy prediction of a season-shutdown is nothing more than bluster for public consumption.

Cox suggests the players know they've lost but are awaiting a potentially face-saving deal from the league, which could come within the next couple of days.

He feels a new offer from the league has to come this week as it's the last possible opportunity for a resolution if the season is to be saved.

And that deal could contain some points which were discussed during last week's "Linden Summit", and Cox believes the league's new offer could contain some new options we've yet to see introduced by either side.

One could be a "unilateral re-open clause", which according to Cox could mean if the players didn't like how the new CBA was working out, they could re-open talks three to four years within that deal.

Cox noted other possibilities might include "a profit-sharing proposal, with the players getting a disproportionate share over a certain figure, and even an intriguing combination salary cap/luxury tax scheme that would extend the range of possible salaries but include a tax in the middle.

For example, the range for salary cap purposes could be something like a minimum of $33 million to a maximum of $50 million per team.

But those teams interested in spending more than, say, $40 million, would have to pay a tax that would then create a pool for revenue sharing.

Or they might have to forfeit draft picks.

So overall spending is limited, but there would still be room for the wealthy Leafs, Flyers and Rangers to spend more than $40 million if they were willing to pay a surcharge in money or draft picks.

Interesting, huh? The owners can say they got a cap, the players could say they fought and achieved a tax/revenue sharing system.

That would be very interesting indeed, but we won't know for certain until the league makes a new offer.

I will say that, if the league did make proposals such as those noted by Cox, it would be the first time it has attempted to engage in real negotiations. I will also say that the NHLPA will have a tough time justifying any rejection of such a scheme, since it would still allow big market clubs to spend what they like up to $50 million, which would thus still alow market forces to dictate what the top players would earn.

It would also keep salaries under control, but wouldn't adversely affect the players market value. And introducing a luxury tax would definitely be an improvement over the league's last revenue sharing proposal.

Cox also makes a very good point: " Indeed, it would be the height of stupidity for the league, if it wants to save a portion of the season, to throw the players not just a bone, but a few bones.

The players have been saying publicly for months that they suspect the league has already written off the season.

Well, if the league comes up with an offer today or tomorrow that simply mirrors their December offer, we'll know the players were right.

If they come up with something decidedly more complex and appealing, all may not yet be lost."

So it's up to the NHL. If Bettman and the owners truly want to save the season, they'd better make a better offer than the last two, and definitely along the lines suggested by Cox.

Or else it's all over now, baby blue.

WHY WON'T THE PLAYERS GIVE IN? Seems there's been more pundits questioning the players continuing resistance to the league's cost certainty demands over the past three days.

I'll be addressing some of their comments in my next "Point/Counterpoint" later this week, but here's my short take:

It's quite possible this time the owners won't cave in, that they're really willing to destroy their league over the long term to get their short term fix of cost certainty today, and that sooner or later, be it "next week, next month or next year", the players will have to accept a hard cap.

Still, one has to realize that the players understand they're in a labour war. They're competitive by nature, given their profession.

As long as the majority of them believe they have a chance to win, they won't give up...even if it costs them one season's worth of salaries and possibly another.

For an even better explanation of why the players are digging in their heels, check out the latest piece ("The NHL's Reserve Clause") by the Hockey Rodent, who has done a superb job of covering issues raised in this lockout often overlooked by the press.

WELCOME BACK, THEO: Finally, hats off to Theo Fleury, whom Hockey Canada finally allowed to play in the Alberta Senior League once the NHL and NHLPA informed them they no longer consider Fleury an active NHL player.

Fleury made his debut with the Horse Lake Thunder of the Peace River Hockey League, getting a goal and two assists in that team's 6-5 win over the Spirit River Rangers.

Cynics will claim this merely shows how far Fleury has fallen, that he's reduced to playing in a men's senior league because he can't play professionally anywhere else.

I, however, feel this is an important step on Fleury's road to recovery from alcohol and substance abuse problems that have plagued his adult life and prematurely ended his NHL career.

Fleury will probably never play in the NHL again, but I'm hoping he'll find some peace of mind playing a sport he loves in the province he loves.


If NHL VP Bill Daly is to be believed, the league is working hard on "crafting something that will work for both sides".

His comments come following NHLPA President Trevor Linden's claims after a recent two-day conference between the league and players association that the two sides were no closer to getting a deal done to save the season.

Some pundits and observers have taken Daly's comments to mean an offer to the NHLPA from the league could be coming soon, possibly even this week.

It remains to be seen if that's the case. Daly doesn't suggest it, merely claiming the league is working hard at it and that he believes both sides are actually closer to a deal than they're letting on to the media.

If a new offer from the league is coming, the players aren't expecting it to deviate very much from the NHL's December counter-offer to the NHLPA's 24 percent salary rollback proposal.

There's already media speculation as to what might be coming from the league. Tim Panaccio of the Philadelphia Inquirer reported yesterday the league might make a "soft cap" proposal between $32 million - $38 million.

Only problem is, there's no deviation from what the league was proposing in their December counter-offer, which suggested a "salary range" between $34 million to $38.6 million.

If that's what ends up as the centerpiece of the next league offer, then Trevor Linden is right: the NHL should just send it to the NHLPA via e-mail so it can save them the trip.

Other speculation has the league lowering the UFA eligibility age, minimal entry-level bonuses and a limited form of arbitration.

The league did propose lowering the UFA age to 30 from 31, which isn't a major drop but if one wants to get into reading the tea leaves, it suggests the league is willing to compromise on that point to gain elsewhere.

I suggested several weeks ago that the league might be willing to reduce the UFA age limit to 27 in return for eliminating arbitration. NHLPA Ted Saskin assured me the PA would never accept that, although if the league were willing to make all players coming out of their entry-level salaries eligible for UFA status in return for gashing arbitration, the PA would be willing to discuss that.

Figure the odds of the owners accepting that.

Reducing the UFA age to 27 might be of some interest to the players if arbitration were to remain in place, but if arbitration were to be watered down, that interest would wane...and if a hard cap is in the offer, they'll be no interest at all.

It'll be interesting to see what sort of arbitration system the league might propose if they're indeed considering making it part of their next pitch to the players.

If it's essentially the same system as proposed by the NHLPA last time out, whereby the PA offered up a high-low system comparable to Major League Baseball's as well as giving teams the right to take players to arbitration, the players aren't going to consider this anything new.

In fact, they're likely to question why the league ran it down last month, proposing instead to eliminate arbitration entirely, rather than concede the players made a point worth negotiating upon.

The same goes for entry-level bonuses. The NHLPA recommended capping bonuses at $850K, the same cap as they proposed on entry-level salaries, thus ensuring players on those contracts wouldn't earn more than $1.7 million per season.

The league, of course, wanted entry-levels bonuses eliminated last time around. If they propose accepting the PA's system, they'll be criticized for taking too hard a line last time around, and if they proposed something weaker - say, $350K - they'll come across as cheap.

It's anyone's guess what the league will come out with, but judging by everything we've seen and heard last week, Commissioner Gary Bettman and his inner circle of hawkish owners still want a hard cap in the next CBA, which we all know the players won't accept.

That being said, if the NHL were to adopt the NFL's system, it would work to their advantage.

The players are insistent that they won't accept a hard cap under any circumstances, including "an NFL-style system". But as I've noted before, the NFL's cap system isn't a true hard cap, as it allows flexibility for teams to spend whatever they wish within certain guidelines, provided of course that at a future point they get their payroll back under the cap limit.

Were the NHL to propose a similiar system, which has proven worthwhile to NFL players to the tune of an average salary worth over $4 million, with UFA rights at age 24, prorated signing and incentive bonuses, and renegotiation rights over the life of a contract, as well as a 60-40 gate split between home and visiting teams thus ensuring small market teams could be more competitive, it would in my opinion be a system the PA should not turn down, given the obvious benefits.

But as I've also noted in previous columns both here and on Foxsports, there's no way the NHL owners would accept such a system.

What they want is the first true hard cap in sports history, essentially ensuring the players have no rights and serving only to bolster the profits of big market clubs whilst giving what amounts to charity to small market teams. It's all there in their last offer exactly what the league is seeking.

So unless the league suddenly decides to look seriously into a tough payroll tax system or the aforementioned NFL system, don't expect much from their next offer to change the players mind.


An interesting tidbit in the aftermath of the failed two-day "Linden Summit" was the NHLPA President was apparently told by NHL counsel that "the league would use a dispersal system to shift players from high-payroll teams to low-payroll clubs to get all teams between the salary floor and ceiling range."

That jibes with what Larry Brooks of the NY Post reported last summer and fall, that it was Gary Bettman's intention to utilize a dispersal draft to assist clubs with large payrolls to get under a hard cap.

What remains to be seen, however, is if those big market clubs would still have to pay the salaries of those players they lose in such a draft as
Brooks claimed.

That seems rather far-fetched since the purpose would be to get those teams under a cap. If they're still paying for those players, they're still not under a cap, unless of course there's a grace period imposed or some sort of technicality whereby those salaries wouldn't count against the cap, which would make a mockery of the system in the first place.

On the face of things, it would appear that a dispersal draft would help
clubs plug the gaps within their rosters and bring more talented depth to those small market clubs who wouldn't normally be able to afford that depth under the old CBA.

But before fans of those clubs start rubbing their hands in anticipation, they should take a moment to think about the calibre of the talent available under a dispersal draft.

Ask yourselves one question: why would big market clubs accept the prospect of losing players via a dispersal draft?

After all, they spent a lot of time and money building their franchises into potential Cup contenders. It doesn't make sense for them to accept a dispersal draft that would potentially tear apart their rosters.

The reason why they'll accept that system is because most players they'll put into a dispersal draft aren't going to be high calibre. Essentially, the dispersal draft will be a system via which teams can either get out from under some expensive contracts or to dump some lesser talent in order to make room for younger, cheaper talent.

Think about it. Does anyone really believe a team like the Detroit Red Wings would cut loose a rising talent like Pavel Datsyuk because by re-signing him as an RFA his salary could put them over the cap?

Of course not! The Wings will re-sign Datsyuk and cut elsewhere. Looking at those players on their roster signed beyond this season, a more likely candidate to go would be Ray Whitney, slated to make $3.5 million next season (before the players' proposed 24% rollback) and $3 million in 2006-07.

Whitney's still a decent hockey player, but at 32 he's getting up in years and battled injuries last season. He wouldn't be as valuable to a small market club as a rising star like Datsyuk would be.

One has to wonder whether a player like Whitney would feel motivated to returning to a low-salaried team that has little immediate chance of making the playoffs. He spent most of his career with clubs like those in Florida and Columbus before hitting the big time in Detroit and, in his mind, getting a real shot at playing for the Stanley Cup.

Looking at the Toronto Maple Leafs roster, it's a given that players like Mats Sundin, Ed Belfour, and Bryan McCabe won't be going anywhere. So where to cut to get down under a cap?

A likely candidate could be Owen Nolan, who's been plagued by injuries and inconsistency and carrying a $6.5 million contract through into next season.

Sure, there's always the chance he could return to his 44 goal form, except for the fact that was five years ago and he hasn't come anywhere close to that number since. A smart GM drafts for potential, not for what someone did years ago. You draft for upside, and Nolan's isn't much to brag about.

Popular roleplayers like Tie Domi or Darcy Tucker might also be on the chop block, particularly if Joe Nieuwendyk and Gary Roberts insist on returning for another season.

At first blush it seems they'd be welcome additions to any roster, but if Domi were dumped by the Leafs he'd be crushed and that could take him a while to get over it. Tucker, meanwhile, has a deserved reputation as a dung-disturber, which got him run out of Montreal and Tampa Bay and has kept his name in the trade rumour mill in Toronto over the past two years.

Perhaps the best case is the Philadelphia Flyers, who have millions tied up in fading talent like John LeClair, Tony Amonte and Sean Burke through this season.

If a new CBA were in place by tomorrow, those three would be prime candidates to hit the dispersal draft, as the Flyers can't give these guys away in the trade market.

And given the promise of young centres Mike Richards and Jeff Carter, who acquitted themselves well at this year's World Junior Hockey Championship, they could likely toss Jeremy Roenick into that dispersal draft too.

LeClair, Amonte, Burke and Roenick were among the top players in the league at one time or another, but they're all clearly on the downside now. They might be good for a little marquee value on a small market club but it's unlikely they'll make those teams better in the long run.

Even with this kind of draft meeting with the approval of big market teams willing to dump salary, it still won't be an easy decision for some of them.

Provided the season is lost to the lockout, some will have it easier than most, thanks to contracts that expire after this season, or players who retire.

There will be clubs, however, like the New York Rangers and Bostn Bruins, who even after gutting their rosters prior to the lockout will still carry some players with hefty contracts (provided in some cases, like Joe Thornton, they re-sign with those clubs for next season) and still have a lot of roster space to fill, which has the potential to push them over a cap limit.

Another thing that could impact this draft will be the number of restricted free agents teams will be looking at re-signing next season. Even if there is a hard cap on salaries, teams will still pay out top dollar to retain their best RFA players, which only increases the likelihood that the most talent available in the dispersal draft will be of the marginal kind.

Think back to previous expansion drafts , and you'll get a good idea of the quality of talent that'll be available.

As we can see by the Minnesota Wild's list of picks, there wasn't much for them to choose from. Almost all of those players were either past their prime or of marginal skill.

Essentially, players other clubs either didn't want anymore or had no room for.

Naturally, existing small market clubs won't be looking to build a roster from the ground up but to add depth. That being said, don't expect to land that number one goalie, stud blueliner or offensive wizard from such a list.

The pickings will be slim.


Finally, just wanted to pass along this bit if some of you haven't already seen it or heard it. It's an obituary from the Ottawa Citizen, courtesy of Brian McCulloch:

" Archibald Bennitz

BENNITZ, Archibald (Archie) Wednesday, January 19, 2005, at the age of 84. Predeceased by his wife Vicky, Archie was the beloved father of son David and daughter-in-law Wendy and a wonderful grandfather to Joshua, Michael and Adam. He leaves behind his brother Doug in B.C. and many nephews and nieces. Archie was born in Amherst, Nova Scotia and served overseas with the 422nd Squadron RCAF, in WWII. A long-time resident of Niagara Falls, Archie was an avid fan of watching hockey. He asked that Mr. Bettman and Goodenow know that they are "skunks" for denying him the pleasure of watching the NHL on TV this year. He also asked that Mr. Bettman steps aside and gives Wayne Gretzky the job that rightfully belongs to him. Special thanks to Dr. Yahyavi, Ellen, and the nurses on the 4th floor of the Queensway Carleton Hospital for their caring and compassion. At Archie's request he is being cremated and a private family gathering will be held. In memoriam donations to the Canadian Cancer Society would be appreciated."

Archie, you can go to your rest secure in the knowledge that millions of hockey fans feel the same way as you do. Bless you, sir. The very least I can do for a brave former Airman of the RCAF is to send you off with this:


Pilot divine, and Lord of all on high

Thine are the starry squadrons of the sky

Lead us whose wings

For freedom’s sake now soar

Into our hearts Thy faith and courage pour

Lord hear our prayer


Father and friend, in whose almighty name

We dedicate our lives to freedom’s flame

Bless now our wings

As on through space we wend

Bless us who to Thy care

Our souls commend

Lord hear our prayer



So after two days of discussion between the NHL and NHLPA, we're no better off than before they started.

The lockout continues unabated. Time continues to run out on any chance of saving the season. Both sides continue to have "philosophical differences", meaning the league wants a cap, and the players don't.

It's getting harder to be optimistic over a resolution to this needless lockout. Each time our hopes are raised - the players offer to cut a quarter of their salaries across the board, NHLPA President Trevor Linden seeks to speak face-to-face with Harley Hotchkiss, Chairman of the NHL Board of Governors - they end up cruelly dashed.

Judging by the reaction of the media on Friday, they've pretty much given up, and who can blame them? Like most of us, they're frustrated over the unwillingness of both sides to engage in real negotiations to get a deal done.

As for the rumours you hear about the players or owners cracking, don't believe them.

Al Strachan and Larry Brooks can crow over faltering owner resolve and Stan Fischler can gleefully claim more players are willing to accept a cap, but it's painfully apparent any conversions on either side aren't of significant number to sway Gary Bettman or Bob Goodenow to give an inch.

Not that I blame the players, for at least they're trying to negotiate. Surely I'm not the only one to notice it's been the NHLPA who thus far initiate every attempt to make proposals and concessions, or to kick-start stalled negotiations, while the league and owners have been merely reactive to anything that comes from the PA, and then only to briefly dismiss those proposals.

Still, I don't buy for a minute that a decent cap system - one that allows flexibility and would increase as revenues rose - is going to hurt the players. Indeed, as the NFLPA has made clear, the majority of their players are happy under their cap system, and none of them are starving or consider themselves hard done by in comparison to other professional sports leagues.

For Goodenow and Bill Guerin to claim that NFL players either aren't happy with their system or have no rights simply doesn't wash when one examines the facts.

Indeed, if the NHL were to propose adopting the NFL's model, or a reasonable facsimile, I'd be on my feet applauding it. And I'd be highly critical of the players for not accepting it.

But as much as the NHL cites the NFL's system as proof a cap system works, the last thing NHL owners want - particularly those in big markets -is a system whereby players are eligible for UFA status at age 24, would be eligible to renegotiate their contracts, which would be laced with prorated bonuses and incentive clauses.

Nor, for that matter, would they want to adopt the NFL's revenue sharing system whereby the gate is split 60-40 between the home and visiting teams.

What the NHL wants is laid out in their last offer: a true hard cap set over the life of the next CBA, with limited revenue sharing drawn from a limited pool of playoff revenues, no bonuses for entry-level players and no salary arbitration.

Granted, they might be willing to move off the last two, but only if the players accept the league's hard cap, which for now, the players simply won't accept.

You can't blame the owners, however, for believing the players resolve is crumbling. After all, it's been the PA that's taken the initiative with proposals and made all the concessions. I'm sure Bettman and his clique believe if they hold the line the players will cave on everything.

And that's why I'm pessimistic that, even if the players were willing to discuss a cap, that the NHL would be willing to negotiate a fair and flexible one.

More than one pundit believes that the owners will never cave and therefore the players should just accept what they can get now rather than have it shoved down their throats at some point next year when their resolve inevitably crumbles.

And perhaps the players will falter and give in, which of course will lead to much criticism being heaped upon them as well as blame for any damage done to the league's reputation.

But let's face it, if you were in their shoes, you'd want to hold out for as long as you could, too. Better to go down swinging than to meekly cave in as long as there's a chance the other side might blink like they did in 1992 and 1995.

And as far as the league's reputation goes, Bettman and the owners have done a very fine job of running that into the ground. Does anyone really believe that cost certainty will cure the ills this bunch has inflicted upon it? How ludicrous is it that the very bunch who screwed things so royally are now claiming they can fix it?

Cost certainty won't lower ticket prices and thus entice fans to return. That's going to be up to the teams, and they're going to try to milk us for as much as they can.

Cost certainty won't improve the product, nor will it improve television ratings in the United States. Who cares if player salaries are lower if the game still sucks and American sports fans don't care.

Cost certainty isn't going to save teams who couldn't make a go of it under the last CBA. If you couldn't make a go of it with a payroll between $25 million to $33 million, how will a $34 million to $38 million hard cap make life easier?

Cost certainty isn't going to make small markets more competitive, since the big name players will still get paid salaries far out of their reach even under a hard cap.

Cost certainty isn't going to bring about the kind of revenue sharing those teams will desperately need, since the kind proposed by the league is tied to fluctuating playoff revenues, of which any small market club that makes the playoffs will have to pay into.

Cost certainty could force some of the world's top prospects, including those from North America, to test the waters in Europe if they can make more coin over there than under the league's proposed entry-level system.

Cost certainty could also give established European and even some North American players incentive to give serious consideration to offers from Europe.

I can hear my critics moaning, "there you go again, Spector, bashing the league and the owners", but I'm sorry, I'm not seeing anything in the league's cost certainty plan that's going to solve its problems, especially when the consensus of the best pundits and commentators all believe a tough luxury tax system is the best way to go.

I would prefer to see the owners take a more proactive stance in these negotiations, rather than passively awaiting the next offer from the players. Negotiating doesn't mean sitting back for weeks and months at a time waiting for the other side to seize the initiative.

What I would love to see is the owners losing the tough-guy, hard line approach toward these talks in favour of working with the players to get something worked out, but that's just not gonna happen. After getting spanked by Bob Goodenow in the 1992 strike and the 1994-94 lockout, they aren't going to give him a third chance to beat them at their own game.

Not all the owners are to blame for the messes created under the last CBA. Some ran their clubs responsibly, worked within set budgets and produced clubs that had various degrees of success.

Unfortunately, there are also many who, while they may be successful in the business world, have no idea how to run a sports franchise.

I'm sure there are a sizeable number of owners, maybe as many as a quarter of them, who want this mess resolved, just as there may be perhaps a quarter of the NHLPA's membership who'll accept a cap.

But ultimately, it all comes down to Bettman and Goodenow. You can have all the back-door, low-level talks between the two sides from now until hell freezes over, but unless those two put their stamp of approval on a proposal, nothing will take place.

So there we are, once again back to a whole lotta nothin' goin' on.


Hockey fan Roger Sackeroff recently posted some interesting questions for the NHL and NHLPA on Foxsports.com regarding the next collective bargaining agreement, whenever it is finally signed.

The lack of information, as Sackeroff noted, has raised these questions as to what the NHL's future will be under the new CBA.

I should point out that he's not the first one to ask these questions, as I've posted them throughout the lockout both on this site and in my Foxsports.com column.

The NHL's future may be uncertain with no clear answers to Sackeroff's questions, but I'm willing to give my best guess, based on the information available.

1. If an agreement is signed that includes a salary cap, what will happen to teams that are already over the salary cap threshold?

Sackeroff observed he's yet to hear an answer on this, and cited clubs such as the NY Rangers and New Jersey Devils who were already carrying players on their rosters whose combined salaries alone would be worth around $34 million, which is roughly where NHL Commissioner Gary Bettman envisions his hard salary cap to be.

Sackeroff wonders if those hefty contracts will be "grandfathered" into a new system. Bettman was asked that question during the press conference in which he rejected the NHLPA's last offer, and he suggested that would be taken into account once a new CBA was in place, but he wasn't going to deal with hypothetical questions at that time. Meanwhile, Sportsnet hockey analyst Bill Watters believes a hard cap would be imposed immediately.

Like Sackeroff, I dismiss the notion of a dispersal draft as floated by Larry Brooks of the NY Post last summer (sorry, the link no longer works), particularly if the original team were to remain responsible for those salaries of players plucked away from them. There's no way in hell someone like Ed Snider or Mike Illich will stand for that.

Best guess: Big market clubs like the Rangers, Red Wings, Flyers, Blues, Avalanche and Maple Leafs carry a lot of influence. They won't stand for their rosters being gutted overnight, so expect some form of grandfather clause to be imposed to give those teams a grace period of a year or two to get down to whatever the cap limit would be.

2. If there is a salary cap, how will that affect player movement during and after the season?

Sackeroff notes that in the off-season teams that are already well under a hard cap can jockey for free agent players, or perhaps swing deals for players with teams seeking to dump salary to get under a cap.

However, he points out that a hard cap might restrict player movement during the season, meaning that teams who are maxed out at the cap level won't be able to sign or trade for additional depth, particularly if a key player vital to a team's playoff hopes such be sidelined with a lengthy injury.

Sackeroff suggest what might happen is "useful, productive players are dealt for cap room, which often includes injured or useless players who are only dealt because their contracts are set to expire."

Best guess? Bettman and the owners probably haven't given this much thought, focusing on tying salaries to revenues at apparently all costs. Once some of these owners realize they've handcuffed themselves as Sackeroff suggests, that's when we'll start seeing some creative legal manoeuvering to find ways to skirt the cap.

It's also possible they have given this more consideration, and they might allow some flexibility to be built into the cap, provided teams can then in the off-season jettison salaries, although I'm not sure how they'd accomplish this.

Either way, I anticipate we'll see the use of "capologists" like those employed by NFL teams to help teams find legal ways to spend what they want and yet still remain within the rules governing a hard cap.

3. If the NHL has both a rookie and overall player salary cap, how will they lure top young players to the league?

Sackeroff argues that this could affect the league's talent base, in that promising young players might decide to play in Europe for more money than they'd make under the league's proposed entry-level system.

This is where I believe the league is being arrogantly short-sighted. Because the NHL has had a monopoly on the world's best players for year, its hierarchy and team owners believe the world's best young prospects will continue flocking to the NHL even with a draconian entry-level system of no bonuses and an $850K cap.

A good number of them will, especially in Canada, but I'd expect a considerable number to look at playing in Europe, especially if they can get a better deal across the pond than they would in the NHL. That number will likely contain more European than North American prospects, but one shouldn't rule out the possibility of an impact North American prospect deciding on Europe over the NHL.

And don't think European teams don't have the money. Sackeroff noted Atlanta Thrashers star Ilya Kovalchuk is making $3 million this season playing in Russia, and top prospects like Alexander Ovechkin and Evgeni Malkin could also draw wages worth two, three or even four times in Russia what they would make under the league's proposed entry-level system.

Should Ovechkin and Malkin opt to remain in Russia, the two clubs who drafted them -Washington and Pittsburgh respectively - would have nothing to show for selecting them 1-2 in the 2004 entry draft. And remember, under current draft rules those two can stay in Europe for three years without signing with their NHL teams and then would be eligible to go right back into the draft, where their rights could be plucked away from the Capitals and Penguins by other teams.

It would also make drafting European players a risky proposition for NHL teams, who would have to ensure their prospects want to sign an NHL contract and aren't being wooed by their agents into signing overseas for considerably more money.

The entry-level system as proposed by the NHLPA ($850k salary cap plus bonuses capped at $850K) at least allows NHL teams to make competitive bids for the top prospects against European bidders, but if the league gets what it wants, it faces the potential of losing out on some of the top young talent in the world.

4. Will a cap cause ticket prices to be reduced and stay reduced?

I don't have to guess about this one. I can say, with all certainty, that a cap will have little long-term effect on ticket prices.

If I've said it once, I've said it a thousand times: player salaries have no correlation to ticket prices. Those prices are determined by what each market will bear. As Montreal Gazette columnist Pat Hickey noted last month, "(t)hat's why you can get a game ticket, a program, a cap and a pizza for $40 in Buffalo and pay about $150 for the same product in Toronto. "

Sure, once a new CBA is in place, some teams will offer a modest cut in ticket prices "as a way of saying "thank you" to our loyal fans". Unfortunately, within a year or two, those prices will go up again.

Not even Gary Bettman can keep ticket prices down, for as he told a meeting with Toronto Maple Leafs season ticket holders last month, ticket prices will be determined by the teams and the markets where they play, not by the league.

And there will be a lot of disappointed hockey fans when that happens.

- If you're interested in my take on the latest CBA talks, check out my column later today on Foxsports.com/NHL.



Seems my comments in recent days have generated several e-mails from readers, some of which I want to respond to here.

Again, this isn't for me to "get in the last word" but rather to address some of these comments in a public forum and hopefully encourage more feedback, either by the original authors or from other readers.

Space may prohibit me from posting the full comments here but there will be in full in my "Fans Speak Out" section. Reader comments are italicized.

But before I continue, the outcome of yesterday's meeting between Trevor Linden and Harley Hotchkiss is encouraging.

Ted Saskin and Bill Daly emerged from this meeting without specifying what was discussed, but making statements that the talks were "positive" and that another meeting is apparently slated for today in Toronto.

Finally, we have an optimistic sign. What was most telling to me was Saskin and Daly met the press following Wednesday's meeting standing together and addressing the media together.

For two guys who've spent much of this lockout chucking verbal spitballs at each other via the media, the fact they're apparently on the same page for the first time in this dispute is noteworthy.

Bear in mind, this could all still fall apart, or if any proposals emerge from today's talks or any future talks, they could still be shot down by Gary Bettman or Bob Goodenow.

For now, however, we're finally seeing a positive sign, the first real one since this lockout began.


Here's the problem: On several occasions I have read comments that argue that the owners should not be let off of the hook for having caused this mess. To those kind of debates I say "so what." Are you saying the NHL should go on bleeding cash simply because owners are to blame and need to be punished?

No, what I'm saying is the owners need to take responsibility for what they've incurred. Folks are saying the players should just give up and submit to what the league is seeking, but that means the owners aren't held accountable or acknowledging they've screwed up. If they don't take at least some responsibility, where's the incentive for them to learn from those mistakes? They must also be willing to at least compromise and negotiate, something they've as yet to do. By insisting on the players bearing the brunt by maintaining their "take-it-or-leave-it" hard line, it only reinforces that while they've made mistakes, they want the players to pay for them.

I think it is safe to assume, based on the current commitment level of ownership group, that they have clearly recognized that there are significant issues. As well, while we all can debate the best solution, there are times where you defend your views by placing blame. While this is your view and likely a fair criticism, it is not a defense of the NHLPA's proposals or negotiating tactics.

The NHLPA has to date made every concession and every attempt to negotiate. The NHL has not. The NHLPA played within the rules of the last CBA, while the owners failed to use the real leverage they had under the previous CBA to control player salaries. At the end of the day, they were the ones paying the salaries.

At least recognize that ownership are not simply greedy old men who are trying to take advantage of the downtrodden players. Those days are gone.

OK, where, anywhere, did I make that suggestion? Nowhere. I've consistently pointed out that the owners failed to use their leverage in the last CBA to their advantage and instead are trying to put the blame for their own mistakes on the players.

As well, losing money is enough punishment for the foolhardy business practices they have employed. The owners are business people. As such, their goal, plain and simple, is to make money for their shareholders.

But will they learn from those mistakes? By putting the blame on the players, they're essentially making the players scapegoats. As for money, the essential problem here is tying salaries to revenues, but the NHL's revenue situation is fuzzy at best. We've yet to see a detailed, team-by-team breakdown of the league's revenues, only a review based on UROs which Arthur Levitt noted in his own report he had to correct for "discrepancies", and that they may not match actual revenues.

It seems to me, they have recognized a fundamental flaw in their own business practices over the last 15 years and are trying to fix it.

The only flaw they saw was that Bob Goodenow out-smarted them twice and they'll be damned if he'll do it a third time. If the last CBA was so lousy, why did they unanimously vote to extend it, not once but twice, with the blessing of the players association?

I have yet to hear the NHLPA admit that the system is broken and seek to form a constructive partnership with management.

Their offers prove otherwise.

Some decisions have been bad ones, but not all. Their are systemic issues that have contributed to the shortsightedness in some of the poor payroll decisions. Under the old system, individual teams made payroll decisions based on their own financial circumstances.

Which they've always done and always will do, regardless of the outcome of this lockout.

I think we all can recognize that in sports, this might not be the best busniess model to use as one team's decisions ultimately will affect another's. The old system did not promote or allow individual owners or G.M.'s to make payroll decisions which were in the best interest of NHL as a whole. It seems the owners now understand that the old system, one with an uneven playing field from team to team, does not work. But this is a whole other topic and I digress.

Until the league puts measures in place that guarantees no team will be able to find way to skirt a hard cap as they did under the old system with the entry-level cap, until they put into practice a revenue-sharing system that will actually benefit small market clubs, I see no reason to believe that things will change under their cost certainty system.

When your commentary defaults to "ownership is blame" reasoning, I feel your credibility is at stake, since this does nothing to solve the problem. I have no problem with this argument when the subject is actually about the causes of the escalating salaries. Only when you use it to criticize reader arguments defending the ownership proposals do I think it holds no water.

I disagree, indeed, I've have more than one reader ask me, "why do post up viewpoints in your Fans Speak Out section that criticize your opinions without responding to them?"

I do this not to get the last word but to address in a public forum those criticisms of my take on this lockout, and to hopefully encourage debate. I'm not criticizing your opinion, but merely supporting my own.

"Jerry D".

The landscape of professional sports has changed drastically in the past several decades. The economics are light years from where they once were and the players and owners need to work together to ensure the league survives and hopefully grows. Yes, the owners will lose money without a season, but the players will lose more. Also, the owners are generally wealthy businessmen with other ventures to support them. I doubt that's the case with most players. The players association should take a page from the NFLPA and learn how to work together with ownership to form a productive working relationship (there's a concept).

It takes two to tango. If the NHLPA weren't willing to make any concessions, or make changes to the previous system, I'd be more critical of them. The fact they've shown a willingness to make concessions on everything but a hard cap is indicative they want to negotiate, something the league simply has not yet done. Once the league starts doing the same as the PA, I won't be as critical of them.

The NFLPA has fought not only for economic gains, but also for steroid and other drug testing that hopefully protects their members. The NFL continues to grow because of the labor peace that has allowed the teams, league, union, etc... to market and promote the sport, not bash it. The NHLPA should realize that with the continued success of NFL the salary cap has continued to grow, along with the contributions to player benefits and a remarkable concept of pay for play where the league compensates the players additional monies above their salaries for the amount of plays they are on the field for. I know these things first hand as an agent in the NFLPA. Now the NFLPA's next big battle with the owners is over what revenues need to be included in the pool to be shared with the players. That is the kind of battles the NHLPA needs to have in the future after they pull their heads out of the sand and get the game back on the ice.

I agree with you that the NHLPA must work toward labour harmony with the NHL, but the league and the owners must also work toward the same goal.

As an NFL agent, you understand that, as per the NFLPA's Economics Primer of 2002:

"It’s important to emphasize that the Salary Cap does not create a hard limit. And even though the cap may be the CBA's most recognized component, behind the scenes, the current system is driven by four cornerstones:

* Prorating signing bonuses over the length of player contracts;
* The ability to renegotiate existing contracts;
* Free agency;
* And, the uncapped season at the end of the Collective Bargaining Agreement.

Since signing bonuses are prorated, clubs are able to have actual salary expenditures much higher than a given Salary Cap limit; over
the eight seasons the Cap has been in effect, actual per club salary expenditures have exceeded the cap limit by more than $1-billion--an
average of nearly $5-million per club over the cap per season."

The NHL likes to cite how well the NFL's cap system works, and I'll be the first to admit that it does, and that the NHLPA's comments about NFL players being unhappy with their system were wrong. But as much as the NHL cites the NFL's system, they don't want to adopt it. What they want is a true hard cap system, with limited revenue sharing, unlike the NFL's, which is based on a 60-40 split of the gate between the home and visiting teams.

I'd be shocked if the NHL would concede to prorated signing bonsues, renegotiation of existing contracts, unrestricted free agency at age 24, and adopting the NFL's revenue-sharing system.

Richard Ilfeld

In my city (Tampa), the Lighning (NHL) outdrew the baseball team (MLB)....a team with a payroll less than that of ten individual players playing for the more richly endowed teams. We had a football team that set records for futility, and now, thanks to winning, has a waiting list longer than their former average attendance. The NHL attendence, built through astute management and player development more than simply spreading cash around,will collapse if the organization, through finances, cannot have a fighting chance to keep the team together and continue to contend.

So 'cost certainty' IS necessary, and must be negotiated. Our baseball team has 'cost certainty'; that prototypical owner that some talk about who is able to keep to a budget and profit based on TV revenue alone, but we also see play in an empty stadium by a team that has no chance of contending.

The only problem with the league's demanded cost certainty is tying salaries to revenues, when there is debate between the two sides over what the actual revenues are.

One can understand the player's fear that the owners would set a salary cap based on small market revenues, and let the large market owners rake in the profits. There is no doubt that, left to their own devices, owners would so operate. And yet, the salaries for playing hockey, even under these conditions, would so exceed what the player could make otherwise ( and what the rest of of could only dream of through lottery winnings) that the players, especially those of north American heritage, would pretty much have to come in and play.

The problems would be for those players on the low end of the pay scale. The best players will continue to draw top dollar, even if that should be somewhat reduced under a cap system. It'll be the majority of players who'll suffer, as the median salary could be cut noticeably.

The other problem, of course, is that the league's proposed cost certainty systems offers no guarantees for small market teams to become more competitive. Insisting on a revenue-sharing scheme that draws from playoff revenue which would fluctuate from season to season and would essentially see small market playoff teams paying in to benefit other small market playoff teams isn't going to work.

We may well see this. The real courts, as opposed to the court of public opinion, will recognise the business owner's right to a profit, and will examine the financial breakdown, in part, on the basis of those clubs which have gone bankrupt and thus have had to make verifiable numbers public. When the owners declare an impasse at the start of next season, and open the door to those who will play under the conditions they promulgate, they will have teams.

Up until several weeks ago, I believed the NHL was seeking an impasse. My opinion has changed as there are too many legal and international obstacles.

Fans, and players need to understand this about the business -- there will be an equalibrium point where the ticket prices charged, which may have to be much lower, and the salaries, which will also be lower, will balance at a point where there is profit -- and at that point the owners have far more staying power than players whose careers erode with each passing day. We may start with players who are career minor leaguers, or at the end of their career, or who are really a step slow....bet we'll have hockey, in NHL uniforms.

But under the NHL's latest proposal, where they suggested a $38 million cap, there is little benefit to teams who claimed to be struggling with payrolls at that range or less. The Carolina Hurricanes owner claims he needs cost certainty, yet his payroll last season was almost $36 million and he claims he's not making money. So how does that $38 million cap help him?

The owners know that the NHL replacement cycle outside a of few stars is five years. Don't believe it? Pick any modern era team and check the rosters five years apart. Do your really think kids coming out of Junior, who've never had a paycheck, will bag groceries rather than play hockey? If the league shows even modest intelligence, by auditing the financials, and actually raising player salaries a bit if a better year comes along, there won't be a new hard line union. Reality has to be in harmony with itself, ticket prices will, in the long run, represent the real entertainment value and salaries the work product value to the owners based on those ticket prices and whatever meager media revenues can be generated. Hard core fans, at least, will watch the hockey that is played, and I think most players will figure out that playing the game for a six or seven figure salary beats bagging groceries.

You paint a nice picture, but reality begs otherwise. For example, the Minnesota Wild had the fourth lowest payroll in the NHL last season, yet their ticket prices were among the highest in the NHL. That's not going to change under cost certainty. As long as the Wild continue to draw big crowds, they'll maintain tight payrolls far below any league-mandated cap and keep their ticket prices high. And why are you suggesting the players face such menial futures if they don't agree to NHL salaries? Are you suggesting they're too dumb to survive in the real world?

Players will do MUCH better to come to that table, hammer out a deal, and keep their bargaining unit intact. Ask any Eastern Airlines Mechanic, or US Steel worker, or US Textile worker, or air traffic controller, how much those phyrric bargaining victories were really worth.

The players HAVE come to the table three times already, willing to negotiate and offering concessions. When has the league done that yet? And comparing hockey players to those trades aren't the same thing. An airline mechanic, steelworker, air traffic controller or textile worker isn't the product, hockey players are. Big difference.

Tony Palmer

What if anything is keeping the owners from taking their franchises and just starting up a new league with a new players union. Negotiate a contract with the new players union one that will allow the owners to make their fare share of money, after all they are the “Owners”, in most businesses, they tend to make more than any other employee. The contract will still be lucrative for the players, just not as lucrative as before and still being able to get fans into the arena without charging them an arm and a leg for tickets, refreshments and merchandise.

Labour laws in both countries prevent the owners from doing what you suggest. If it were that easy, it would've been done long ago. And there is no correlation between player salaries and ticket prices, concessions and merchandise. Those are determined on what each market will bear, and the players are the beneficiaries but not the cause of those costs. NHL Commissioner Gary Bettman admitted as much to a meeting of Toronto Maple Leafs season ticket holders a month ago.

In my opinion, the owners don’t make enough, the players make too much and the fans pay for the majority of it.

The problem is we don't know for certain what each owner is making, the players have shown a willingness to negotiate and make concessions and the fans will stay pay for it regardless of which side wins, since individual markets will determine what fans in each NHL city will pay.

My biggest problem with the whole situation is that both sides are so pig headed, that they have had very limited to no communication during this lockout. In most cases when you have labor issues, the only way to remedy the situation is by talking almost constantly, if that doesn’t provide answers then a mediator should be called in to get this done.

This, I agree with.

Gunner James.

Enough with the "owners broke it" arguement. It doesn't matter. Quit
crying over spilt milk. It's broken. That's enough. It needs to be fixed
and fixed right. Not a temporary salary adjustment that will disappear as soon as it's implemented. Why? The Owners and GM's can't be trusted to keep the salaries down. We all know it and they know it. They have admitted their fault and instead of being commended, they have been crucified for it.

It would be commendable if they allowed their books to be scrutinized by an truly independant auditor, and were the ones showing a willingness to negotiate and make concessions.

None of this is crying over spilt milk, it's merely citing the facts. You may not like them, but I'm not going to treat them like the proverbial white elephant in the living room. I'm going to cite them where I see fit.

Besides, if as you say the owners and GMs can't be trusted to keep salaries down, how do you know they can be trusted to do so under cost certainty?

Have the players 'fessed up to what they have done to get into this mess? No.

Yes, by making concessions and attempting to negotiate, two things the league has yet to do.

Have they guaranteed that no player would hold out or use his agent to find loopholes? No.

What guarantees do we have from the league that teams won't be allowed to exploit potential loopholes? An agent may find them but it's up to the team to decide if they'll exploit them.

As for players holding out, you'll find if you go back over the past ten years that in any given season, a small number of players staged holdouts, and of those, few went beyond a few weeks before the player was re-signed.

What if the NHL did agree to this status quo solution and kept salaries down without a cap? The players would be rushing off to court screaming collusion.

Easier said than done, as this link makes clear.


It's that time of the week again, folks, so let's get crackin'. The media reports, I respond, and you make up your own minds.

First up, Darren Rovell of ESPN.com:

Often characterized -- and criticized -- as a niche sport with largely regional appeal, the NHL is less likely to suffer at the box office after the lockout because of its higher ratio of hard-core fans to casual fans than other major professional sports.

Only problem is, the NHL desperately needs to attract more casual fans, of which some could then become hard-core fans and thus build on that base. Besides, when your hard-core base in the United States remains predominantly regional, areas that most of which long supported hockey, it's scarcely going to be an improvement if all you've got to rely on is your hard-core base. The NHL was barely surviving as a true major league sport in the US on its present base. Without growing that base, it will remain a niche sport.

After the last lockout shortened the 1994-95 NHL season to 48 games, the league averaged 14,798 fans per game when it resumed play, an increase of 50 fans per game over the 1993-94 season. Attendance continued to rise the next two years.

And then levelled out. A big reason for that increase in fan attendance was the construction of new, larger venues. Even that, however, doesn't necessarily mean the NHL's hard-core fan base grew significantly. A large number of seats are held by corporate season ticket holders, and while the NHL hasn't released figures on the percentage those ticket holders make up their average attendance, one can assume it is a significant number. Most of MSG's seats for NY Rangers games are believed held by season ticket holders, the majority of which are believed held by companies, not families.

"Because of the makeup of the NHL fan base, the league is less volatile than others when work stoppages occur," said Paul Swangard, managing director of the University of Oregon's Warsaw Sports Marketing Center, which recently studied NHL attendance data before and after its last work stoppage. "Baseball lives and breathes off the casual fan that hockey just doesn't have."

Again, if the majority of NHL season ticket holders are corporations and not families or average fans, that base may not be as strong as Rovell suggests, particularly in cities where the league is struggling to establish itself as a viable major league sport. If some of those corporations should discover during this lockout that their clients and employees preferred being feted with theater tickets, dinner or other forms of entertainment, they might reconsider renewing those season tickets. That could cause a significant dip in a team's revenues.

However, attendance can't be analyzed in a vacuum. After the 1994-95 NHL season, the financially troubled Quebec Nordiques moved to Denver, where they won the Stanley Cup. Their immediate success heavily contributed to the rise in NHL attendance.

Just as teams in new locations help galvanize attendance, so do new venues. Eight new NHL arenas opened between 1994 and 1996, compared to three Major League Baseball parks over the same time period. Five arenas opened in the NBA surrounding their work stoppage (1998-2000).

Which buttresses the point I made after the second paragraph. Again, however, that attendance levelled out to around 16, 300. Looks good on paper, until you consider how many venues are built to hold that many or significantly more. Remember, declining attendance has been cited for several years in the media as a major problem for the league. When attendance is announced at, say, 18,000 and anyone with eyes can see on some night you're lucky if it's half or three-quarters that amount, you've got a good idea how many tickets belong to corporate ticket holders. Those seats are considered "sold" even if there's no one sitting in them.

If the 2004-05 season is canceled, industry observers predict future success will depend on the solution. If an agreement is not reached with the players' association by next season, the NHL could declare an impasse, and, if successful, unilaterally impose a salary cap. Replacement players would fill roster spots of players refusing to return.

I used to subscribe to that theory too, but as Tom Benjamin noted on his blog recently (scroll down to "Green Carded") and this link made apparent, it's quite unlikely to happen.

But if the league and the union do work out a collective bargaining agreement in time for next season, Fisher believes the hot hockey markets will have instant sellouts.

"In some markets, they'll be breaking down the doors," Fisher said. "In those markets, they are going to be able to come back and make a profit. But in Nashville and Carolina, they're really going to have a terrible time."

Yep, and that means nothing will have really changed. The big hockey markets will support their teams when they return (especially in Canada), but the other markets where hockey isn't a major draw will continue to struggle. They've got to build up that casual fan interest in order to build upon that hard-core base needed to survive.

Last week, Carolina Hurricanes owner Peter Karmanos told the Toronto Sun that he was willing to lose two seasons for the league to reach the deal it wants. But he wavered on whether he thought the fans would come back.

"I'm enough of a hockey fan to realize that once we got this straightened out, the fans will come back," Karmanos told the newspaper. "But there's a risk that they wouldn't."

I hate to say this, but I doubt Carolina is going to survive. Three years ago when the Hurricanes appeared a team blossoming into a perennial contender, I thought hockey might be able to take hold in NASCAR country. Unfortunately, once the 'Canes stumbled after their 2002 Stanley Cup Finals appearance, the fans stayed away. Hard core fans will come out to support you, win or lose, and it's painfully apparent there aren't enough of those in Raleigh or throughout North Carolina to keep the 'Canes afloat over the long term.

Also, many big market teams haven't been enjoying the type of success they were a decade ago, which could affect overall attendance. The Chicago Blackhawks, who own the second longest postseason streak in NHL history (28 straight appearances from 1970-1997), haven't made the playoffs in six out of the last seven years. The New York Rangers, winners of the 1994 Stanley Cup after a 52-year drought, had made the playoffs 16 times in the 20 years before the last lockout, but have failed to reach the postseason for past seven years. The Los Angeles Kings have qualified for the playoffs only four of the last 11 years.

In the case of the Blackhawks, that's because they're poorly run, where management and coaching has been a shambles. Owner Bill Wirtz has subscribed to the Harold Ballard school of hockey ownership, only he's done something Ballard couldn't do in Toronto: drive away the hard-core base finally fed up with years of crap.

In New York, the Rangers were also poorly run, but for a different reason. Ownership wanted a winner, but put their faith far too much in unrestricted free agents and aging veterans, rather than in developing the young talent within its organization.

As for the Kings, they had to resurrect themselves following the Bruce McNall debacle, as well as a rash of serious injuries to key players over the last two seasons.

Patrick Rishe, an assistant economics professor who teaches sports business at Webster University in St. Louis, said the NHL's risk of rejection by fans might depend on how long the lockout lasts.

"Striking out the whole season could build enough anger amongst the die-hard fans that they might consider walking away," Rishe said. "But it could also be a situation where scarcity makes the heart grow fonder."

Which is what the league is counting on, big time. However, if a year or two is lost, the hard core base may be whittled down, and of the majority who do return, they'll be far more jaded toward the league and the players, which leaves the potential for a further erosion of that base if another long work stoppage is in the future.

Next, Pat MacAdam of the Ottawa Sun:

I began to lose interest when platoons of Europeans, commanding mega-million salaries, swarmed to greedy NHL expansion teams. I surrendered my season tickets when the team moved to the Corel Centre and I have seen the Senators play there once. I was someone's guest for a San Jose Sharks' game.

I doubt very much if I will ever take in another Senators' game or watch the NHL on TV. I am totally disillusioned, totally turned off. I absolutely refuse to subsidize players from Sweden, Russia and the Czech Republic.

So, in Pat's world, it's all the fault of those greedy Europeans and greedy expansion teams.

Two problems with that logic, Pat. First, those Senators are an expansion team. So are the Nashville Predators, Columbus Blue Jackets, Minnesota Wild, Atlanta Thrashers, Florida Panthers, Anaheim Mighty Ducks, San Jose Sharks, and Tampa Bay Lightning.

Of this group, the Senators have been a success since the late 1990s, right around the time you started losing interest in them, since they were built on a strong core of European talent. No one during that period or even today, with new billionaire ownership, would consider the Sens "greedy". Of all the Euro talent to ever wear a Senators uniform, only Alexei Yashin could be truly considered greedy, and the Sens got the better of him and his agent before shipping him out for Zdeno Chara and Jason Spezza.

The Panthers and Mighty Ducks have at various times overspent on marquee talent, but they're still not considered amongst the free spending teams. No one would ever consider the other clubs listed as "greedy expansion clubs", and that include the latter two, one a Western Conference finalist, the other, the 2004 Stanley Cup champions.

Most of the "greedy teams" were either Original Six franchises (Rangers, Maple Leafs, Red Wings), members of the first wave of expansion (Philadelphia, Dallas - formerly Minnesota , St. Louis and Washington) or a remnant of the WHA (Colorado- formerly Quebec).

Second, greed knows no nationality. Take a good look at the highest paid players and you'll find as many North Americans as you will Europeans. And the teams who willingly ponied up their salaries certainly didn't disciminate either.

If the NHL is hell bent on expansion let it be with a brand new league in Europe. European players would draw European salaries instead of bleeding the North American NHL dry.

At this point I switched off. Pat actually had some interesting comments to make on improving the NHL, but his obvious xenophobia trumps any otherwise lucid suggestions he had to make.

And last but not least, Stan Fischler of MSG Network:

Several players on an NHL club, who've been working out together, held a Yes-or-No vote on the league's Hard Cap offer. They voted YES and - according to one reliable source - the organizer phoned Bob Goodenow to reveal the results but could not reach the Association's leader.

What constitutes "several"? A dozen? Five? Three? One with invisible friends? And why are they calling Goodenow directly, rather than notifiying their player rep first, who is the guy supposed to relay these things on to Goodenow? And how do we know Goodenow wasn't out of town, or attending a personal matter, or gone for lunch, or home nursing a cold? This isn't "news", Stan. It doesn't even constitute a decent rumour.

Meanwhile, a top Canadian hockey columnist chatted with a marquee NHL defenseman who once had been anti-Cap. The player now says he'll take the Cap. Still another pro-Cap player was asked by a friend why he wouldn't go public with his anti-NHLPA stance. His reply: "I don't want to be the first. The second, maybe, but not the first!"

My, my, every week somebody is telling Stan or another columnist that more players are changing their minds about a cap. Given this growing support for a cap, surely they'll let their reps know, or demand a meeting with Goodenow right now to seek a vote for a cap.

Oh, but we're to believe Goodenow is Stalin reincarnated and has total mind control over the players, so they're afraid, oh so afraid, to speak up.

Come on now, we're talking hockey players, some of whom aren't in the least bit shy about voicing their opinions.

I have no doubt there are some players who are reconsidering the PA's stance, just as I have no doubt there are some owners who are likely getting nervous, too. Can't say I blame either side, since there are sensible folks on both sides who don't wanna see this season trashed and next season threatened.

But the players aren't puppets and Goodenow isn't Alan Eagleson.

Mark Cuban on the NHL's challenge: "The issue isn't how many games are lost. The issue is what the league does for fans when it comes back."

Reaching a workable compromise deal with their players would be a great start.

More and more neutral media types are ridiculing the NHLPA's stubbornness. This from The Calgary Herald's George Johnson; "Bob Goodenow, maybe it's time to cut your losses. Or, more to the point, their losses. The work force you're paid to represent." How blinded are the players by their leader? Johnson has the answer; "They're so hypnotized by the seductiveness of his tune that they're apparently willing to follow him like rats tagging along after the Pied Piper of Hamelin."

That's "neutral" is it? Hey, if you wanna be critical of Goodenow, I have no problem with that, but back up the reasons with something other than Goodenow as a maniac determined to destroy the league and ruin the players lives. This nonsense of Goodenow misleading the poor dumb players down the garden path is either lazy journalism or personal prejudice.

Reps, such as J.P Barry, affiliated with multi-sport agencies, will continue to align with Bob Goodenow because their paychecks keep arriving. That's not the case with pure hockey outfits such as Don Meehan's Newport Sports. The latter has made a fortune from NHL work, so the questions are: A. How long can he sustain his lucrative business during a Lockout? B. How much of Goodenow's baloney will he continue to digest?

Or how about C. Maybe he supports what Goodenow is doing?

After all, if Meehan were truly concerned, he'd have spoken up by now. And wasn't Stan suggesting several months ago that Meehan was powerful enough to stand up to Goodnow? Gee, is it really that farfetched to believe Meehan might be in Goodenow's camp?

About 350 NHLPA members have taken jobs overseas that normally would be held by Europeans. Does that make the NHLPAers over there Replacement Players or Scabs? Or both?

Oh for heaven's sake!

I can't believe I have to do this again. First, most of those job taken by NHL'ers were offered to those players by the European teams, many of whom left roster spots open for a lot of those players.

Second, if you want to blame anyone for Europeans losing their jobs, it's the owners of those clubs. It's not like the NHL'ers stormed into their offices and demanded jobs whilst brandishing their stick blades in their faces.

Third, the NHL'ers over there aren't scab or replacement players, although the sarcasm of the last bit didn't elude me.

Finally, where was Stan's indignation when, for years prior to this lockout, washed-up NHL'ers and minor league players went overseas to find work in Europe. Or as I like to call it, "taking jobs from Europeans".

Give it up, Stan, this isn't a talking point anymore.

Gary Bettman still has the best analogy of the CBA war: "We've had a car wreck and we want to buy a new car. The union is insisting on new tires for the wreck."

I prefer my own: the owners broke it but they want the players to fix it.

Now that everyone has acknowledged what we've said since last June - that the 2004-05 season would never happen-does that mean communication is dead between the NHL and NHLPA? Not exactly. Expect another offer from the union that improves on the last one in some areas; perhaps even, a slightly higher salary cap. But rest assured-the Cap stays!

Not everyone is buying it, Stan, judging by the amount of news given today's meeting between the NHL and NHLPA. I, however, doubt we'll see another offer from the players for a while. For once, they actually want the NHL to stop sitting on its ass waiting for the PA to keep making proposals it can react to and actually make one of its own without having to be prodded by the players.

A couple of Ex-Rangers-now working on Wall Street-analyze the CBA battle thusly: "The Salary Cap works for the most successful pro league, the NFL, so it should work for the NHL!"

Yes, the NFL's cap works for the NFL....because it's flexible cap with loopholes that allow teams to spend over it, which is one reason cited by the NFLPA why it works, in addition to unrestricted free agency at age 24, the right to renegotiate current contracts and prorated signing and incentive bonuses. Not to mention the lucrative revenue sharing.

If the NHL would adopt an NFL-style cap system, it might work...but the NHL will never adopt that style. It wants a true hard cap with limited revenue sharing, no prorated bonuses, no UFA status until age 30 and no renegotiation of contracts. Check it out if you don't believe me, it's in the league's last proposal.

One could put it another way by fingering warped NHLPA logic: Players still would be wealthy under the league's proposed Cap but their leader prefers them going without a paycheck for more than eight months - and counting. Some leader! Meanwhile careers are needlessly going down by the week: Dave Andreychuk, Gary Roberts, Mark Messier, Scott Stevens, et. al. may simply be finished thanks to their Association's stubborn anti-Cap stance.

So why haven't they spoke out, Stan? These are true leaders, who aren't afraid to speak their minds. Does anyone really, honestly, believe Mark Messier is cowed by Bob Goodenow? Does anyone really believe Scott Stevens is intimidated by the NHLPA leader? That Gary Roberts is being "hypnotized" by Goodenow the Magnificent?

The thinking among the Sabres' high command is that more than sixty percent of their players favor a Hard Cap and would follow through on that position if the NHL opened camps next September.

And where, pray, did they get that number? After all that's a sizeable figure. Surely to heavens the Sabres player rep would be having a tough time keeping those guys quiet, eh? Oh, that's right, all NHL players are scared to death of Goodenow. My bad.

Jeff Halpern on the wonders of playing in Europe: "There's a sense that it isn't the NHL, or where you belong." After quitting one Swiss team and returning home, the Cap signed with another Swiss club. Does that make him a Replacement Player or a Scab or both - or neither? You be the judge.

Maybe it's the scotch talking now, but I'm getting a little sick and tired of Fischler running down the European leagues without taking the time to check it out for himself, and how a guy like Halpern is a "scab" or "replacement player".

If the Euro leagues are so awful, why are over 300 NHL'ers still staying there to play? Why aren't they coming home in droves, demanding Goodenow give in to a cap so they can go back to playing in good old North America where the toilets aren't weird and everyone speaks English?

I've travelled a fair bit throughout Europe during my military days. I can't speak for life as a hockey player, but I can tell you that Europe is a wonderful place to experience. And more than one NHL player is loving it over there. Go do a Google search on Matt Cullen, or Joe Thornton, or Rick Nash,or Shawn Horcoff or Sheldon Souray, and you'll find they are enjoying their European stint and making the most of it.

Sure, there are some North Americans taking longer to adjust than others, and a few who outright hated the experience and returned home. Most, however, seem to be enjoying themselves.

Among the more perceptive scribes covering the labor war is Toronto Sun columnist Mike Ulmer. Ulmer sums up the situation thusly: "Garroted by his own considerable pride, Goodenow will sign a deal with a salary cap, whether it's now or two years from now." Ulmer adds. "There is a reason they call them owners. It's their game. Now that the CBA has died, they're taking it back."

In the same column, Ulmer also said the following: " Having once won the labour war and lost the peace, NHL commissioner Gary Bettman will not stop until he has locked-in terms that even the 30 clubs can't conspire to mess up.

Cost certainty, salary cap, call it what you like, but if ever there was a group that didn't deserve to have their costs fixed, it's the boys club of the NHL, owners and GMs division.

Given a marvelous game and a stable of loyal markets, these jokers have managed to put the game into hibernation in sure-fire cities like Chicago and Boston, dilute the talent base, cheapen the entertainment value, blah-blah-blah-blah-blah. You know what? It doesn't matter.

There's a reason they call them owners. It's their game. They can screw it up as much as they wish and apparently, they wish to very much.

In the end, the owners have decided there will be no hockey and the doors are theirs to lock. "

He went on to say, " In the end, the union position is easily understood.

They played within the rules of the agreement and skunked the house.

The owners' have lamented that given the seriousness of their economic situation, the players should have somehow turned back the clock.


Raise your hand if you think Peter Karmanos would willingly re-do a deal that had proven a spectacular win over their labour force. The players maximized their take. Who wouldn't?

Nor can Goodenow be blamed for thinking that the competitiveness and self-interest of individual owners, the very thing that had made them rich, would once again divide them. "

Basically, Ulmer states his opinion that it billionaires trump millionaires and thus, despite how much the problems of the NHL are the fault of the owners, they're the ones who are (in Ulmer's opinion) going to get what they want out of this dispute.

One of the ploys pulled by the "union" is its claim that the 24 percent salary rollback on all existing player contracts is some sort of panacea. Why is it unacceptable? Ask Peter Karmanos. "It would be a short-term fix," says the Hurricanes' owner. "Within ten minutes of the deal, agents would be on the phone figuring out ways to get back whatever their players lost - as they should." Translated: Owners cannot afford another bad CBA!

Because they cannot be trusted to use the leverage within a CBA to keep salaries under control. See Mr. Ulmer's comments regarding Karmanos above.

A myth being circulated by the "union" suggests that legendary management-types, such as Mario Lemieux, Wayne Gretzky and Kevin Lowe would frown on NHLPAers "crossing the line" should the league open camps next September. Face it, Lemieux, et. al. are not union guys anymore. Their allegiance is to their owners. As one insider puts it, "The minute they take off their uniforms, they become management. Gretzky is no more a union guy than Glen Sather or Pat Quinn."

Who circulated that myth? This is the first I've heard of that. Everyone know where Lemieux and Gretzky stand in this. Ditto Kevin Lowe. And since the likelihood of the NHL getting an impasse and thus forcing players on strike is remote, there won't be any "line" to "cross".

A few Winnipeg tub-thumpers are promoting the idea that the city's big, new MTS Centre arena would be ideal for an NHL club. The reason why Manitoba would be nixed is simple: Bettman, Inc. cannot afford to go to a bad TV market!

Yeah, they're sooooo much better off in those wonderful TV markets in Nashville, Phoenix and Raleigh.

And if there were any way possible for the NHL to return to Winnipeg, if it would save a team from being contracted, "Bettman Inc" would be all over it like ugly on a gorilla.

If any current franchises are to be moved - Pittsburgh remains atop the list of potentials - the two most likely "next NHL cities" are Houston and Portland. Once a favorite, Kansas City appears to have lost some appeal despite the attraction of a new arena.

Support for Houston has also waned from the days when it seemed the Edmonton Oilers were to be moved there in 1998. As for Portland, rule out Paul Allen, Microsoft co-founder, for as articles that appeared in both the Portland Oregonian and Calgary Sun several years ago made clear, he's not interested in an NHL franchise. So they'll have to find someone else willing to do so.

But hey! There's always Winnipeg!

Don't be surprised if Mario Lemieux - at a strategic time in the future - goes public with a powerful pro-owner position. "Lemieux," writes the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette's Dave Molinari, "is squarely on the owners' side. All the time. In every way."

Which would make him the biggest hypocrite in NHL history.

Something is screwy when a big deal is made over Sidney Crosby's missing jersey.

Wouldn't be because there's no NHL hockey?

What's the significance of Wednesday's not-so-secret meeting between player reps and league officials headed by Bill Daly?

For starters, there have been rumblings that some members of the NHLPA executive committee have been unhappy with the negotiating trend.

There's also been rumblings for some time that some owners have been unhappy with Bettman and the hawkish owners pushing hard for a hard cap.

The fact that NHLPA president Trevor Linden initiated the conference means that once again the players have blinked.

It actually demonstrates once again that the players are the ones willing to negotiate and make concessions to get a deal done. Unlike the NHL, who only reacts to NHLPA proposals without making any on their own initiative.

One possibility is that the NHLPA will say, "Okay, we'll take the cap" in return for significant concessions in the area of free-agency and player participation in rule-making.

That is a possibility.

But my view is that nothing will come of it as long as Goodenow has clout. If the players can push him aside, a deal can be made.

Oh, please! One minute Goodenow's an evil mind controller with supreme executive power, the next, the players are "pushing him aside". Whatever, Stan!

Very relevant is the presence of NHL Board of Governors chairman Harley Hotchkiss.

A top league official puts it this way: "My expectation is that Linden will look Hotchkiss in the eyes and ask: 'Is Gary Bettman speaking for the board or for himself?' Linden will be told that Bettman speaks for all 30 Governors."

Once that message is delivered, it then will be up to Linden and Ted Saskin -- Goodenow's deputy -- to decide whether they are prepared to negotiate.

Which they've been doing since June, 2003, when they made their first proposal to the league.



As I sit here writing this, a nasty Nor'Easter blizzard has been pounding Prince Edward Island and the other Maritime provinces for twelve hours without let-up.

The howling winds gusting up to 80 Km/h are creating whiteout conditions. At times I can barely see the houses across the street. My mini-van is now half-buried in a snowdrift that seems to build by the hour.

The snowplows have been twice yanked off the highways as decreased visibility makes it treacherous even for those big orange monsters to be out on the roads.

We're supposed to get 30 cms of snow today but judging by how much has fallen and continues to fall, I'm betting we'll hit closer to 40 once its finished.

It was of course a "snow day" for everyone here on my blizzard-battered Island. Schools and businesses closed, Mounties telling people to stay off the highways. Outside, save for the howling wind, nothing moves.

Kinda like the CBA talks between the NHL and NHLPA.

Hey, nice transition, eh? Mebbe I'm gettin' the hand of this wry-ting thing after all.

It's times like this, with a blizzard howling at my door, lounging in my PJs with a glass of Glenlivet warming my belly, that I start to wonder if anyone on either side of this protracted and stupid NHL work stoppage really care about the damage they're inflicting upon themselves.

Yes, I support the players, insomuch as they've at least attempted to negotiate and showed a willingness to make concessions. And while I don't believe the league has lost as much money as it claims, I acknowledge there are losses, as well as problems with the last CBA, that need to be addressed.

What's upsetting is the way both sides are approaching this.

With both proclaiming they'll never, ever bend, it's created a poisoned atmosphere. Weeks, even months, roll by before the next round of "talks" flare up, and then it's to point out what's wrong with each side's proposals before hunkering back down into their trenches to lob verbal artillery at each other.

The worst thing about this is that it comes when the league's popularity in the United States is at perhaps its lowest ebb.

This is not a time to be playing a high-stakes game of "chicken".

This is a time when both sides must work together, not only over a new CBA, but also to make real and positive changes to improve the moribund product they've been icing over the past ten years.

Both Gary Bettman and Bob Goodenow supposedly don't want to be the guys to cave this time around. "Not on my watch" is their motto. Bettman won't rest until he gets a hard cap, Goodenow until he gets anything else but.

Meanwhile, the sport whithers and dies in North America.

Sure, the majority of Canadian hockey fans will come back, but those who do likely won't be quite as fanatical as they once were. They're becoming jaded and cynical, characteristics which will linger long after this lockout is but a painful memory.

In the United States, however, it's much worse. Poll after poll shows a majority of American sports fans don't know there's an NHL lockout and quite frankly, could care less.

How can either side sit back and claim not to be worried over the damage this lockout is having in the US?

TV ratings were lousy before, and they're likely to be rock bottom whenever the NHL finally gets back into action if this season is lost.

Merchandise sales dropped an alarming 85% since the lockout was imposed. Companies who once spent money on season tickets now are finding other venues to throw around their entertainment dollars.

Doesn't either side see the threat here? Don't they realize the damage they're doing to the ratings, merchandise sales and corporate season tickets? Don't they realize how the after-effects could linger long after a new CBA is hammered out?

If they let this season die, obviously not.

In the grand scheme of things, a hockey lockout is no big deal compared to bigger issues in the world. As one of my readers recently noted, given the problems in the world, it's important to have some perspective.

No, this isn't an end-all or be-all. But the NHL provides a much-needed distraction for a lot of us, something that helps keep us from allowing the pressures of life to get us down. It's a release, a well-needed pressure valve. It gives those of us who follow it something we all need in life: a little fun.

Sure, we could look to other hockey venues to find that excitement, but even with the NHL's problems, it was still the best players in the world going at it. Watching AHL and Junior A games, the energy level is high, but the skill levels still don't match up with that seen in the NHL.

And that's what we want to see, those lucky few who worked hard enough and were blessed with the natural ability to play a sport at the highest level.

But it's becoming apparent that we probably won't get to see that kind of hockey at all this winter.

Sure, there are some in the press who believe a 24-game schedule might be doable, that there is still enough time to get a deal in place to save some semblance of the season.

I appreciate their optimism, but I don't believe we'll see that sort of thing.

The best case I was willing to give was 36 games, but if there's no deal in place by this weekend, that's not going to happen.

Barring a miracle, I believe the 2004-05 season will be forever remembered as the lost year, which plunged the NHL into a dark age.

And it's all so needless, so pointless.

Bettman and Goodenow could get a deal in place tonight if they really wanted to.

They could hash out all the details and come up with something workable for both sides. They could negotiate, make concessions and get something done.

But neither is willing to bend, and they're apparently willing to kill off this season, and inflict potentially long-term damage to the NHL's already-flagging popularity, to get what they want.

It's the wrong battle at the wrong time.

The owners and players could rise up and insist a deal get done now, but they've rallied behind their respective representatives, either willingly or through coercion.

We fans meanwhile sit on the sidelines and rail at the stupidity of one or both sides via sports bars, chat-shows, message boards, blogs, websites or if you're lucky like me, via a free-lance column.

Ultimately, however, what we have to say doesn't mean squat to either side. They tell us they're very sorry about this dispute and wish they could be back playing, then blame the other side for being arseholes.

I told you folks several times before this lockout was imposed and soon afterward that our words mean nothing, that we have no power over what the NHL and NHLPA does.

We had our chance last year to voice our displeasure, to hit both sides in their collective wallets by boycotting playoff games or the World Cup of Hockey, or by demanding refunds on season tickets, but too many decided to watch as many remaining games as possible before the big freeze fell over the NHL.

The fact the season is now on the brink proves once again that we are seen but not heard.

And the clock just keeps on ticking.

Ah, this is depressing enough. I've got a van to dig out of a snowbank, a good book to finish reading, another glass of scotch to finish off and a wife to spoon with.

I will admit this: if I were merely a casual fan of the NHL, I wouldn't return to watch it after the lockout. Indeed, if it weren't for the fact I'm actually making a bit of a living off this website and my free-lance gig, I probably would turn my back forever on the NHL.

It's no longer the exciting product I grew up enjoying as a child, through my teens and into young adulthood.

But hey, somebody's gotta stick around and point out where they're going wrong, eh?

ADDENDUM: Just as I was finishing up this piece, word came from Canadian Press that a "small group meeting" of members from both the league and the association were slated to meet in a secret location on Wednesday to attempt to re-start the dialogue between the sides.

Neither Bettman nor Goodenow will be involved in this, but their right hand men, especially NHL VP Bill Daly and NHLPA VP Ted Saskin - will be in attendance.

Saskin says no proposals are being made and the NHLPA will be looking to see if there are other options other than a salary cap that the league would prefer.

Is it a glimmer of hope?

The fact Bettman and Goodenow won't be there will be the subject of much discussion between now and Wednesday, with the consensus likely to be that the two have removed themselves from the discussions because of their mutual animosity.

Others might see it as a potential stepping stone toward a larger deal, perhaps based on the as-yet unsubstantiated rumour of Bettman and Goodenow meeting this past weekend, that they may have set up a framework for their minions to work out the small details.

The fact their right hand men are involved in this is a positive sign, but remember, anything that comes out of this, even if they should emerge with something that could set the groundwork for future proposals, ultimately will need the blessing of Bettman and Goodenow to pass.

This is better than no talks at all, but only just. Try not to get your hopes up too much, gang, remember, we all thought last month's proposals would start the negotiations rolling, but we've had nothing but silence between the two sides (officially at least) for a month now.


- Gotta admit, folks, it's not looking good at all for any kind of last-minute settlement to save the season.

It was bad enough when Peter Karmanos Jr. proclaimed his "gut feeling" last week the 2004-05 season was lost.

Now comes word that NHLPA director Bob Goodenow is telling the players not to count on the league re-starting anytime soon. In fact, he's telling them to take any contracts available in Europe, not only for the remainder of this season but also for next season, too.

So much for all that talk of wavering solidarity on the players part. Barring a last minute deal laced with concessions from the league, the season is truly over.

- Speaking of Karmanos' "gut feeling", that may have turned into indigestion soon after his declaration that the season was over.

Seems Hurricanes fans were demanding the remainder of their season-ticket money back soon after hearing Karmanos' comments.

And he wonders why he can't make money with the Hurricanes...

- Major League Baseball intends to toughen up on their drug-testing policy to catch players abusing steroids.

To date there's been little news about the NHL's own drug testing policy, which isn't surprising given the attention focussed on the lockout.

According to this link the NHL presently has no drug testing policy regarding steroids. It prefers to focus instead on the abuse of alcohol and recreational drugs such as marijuana.

The NHL doesn't have a problem with steroid abuse amongst its players, or at least none that it is aware of. The last notable case was in the early 1990s when it was revealed after the tragic death of enforcer John Kordic that he was abusing steroids in addition to cocaine and alcohol.

I'm not suggesting that drug or steroid abuse is rampant within the NHL, but it might not be a bad idea for the league to consider the implementation of a testing policy.

Such a policy would require the approval of the NHLPA, but hopefully both sides can reach an agreement in order to ensure potential problems can be caught early, rather than having them exposed in the messy fashion as those of Major League Baseball.

- In the early months of the lockout, I was of the opinion that the NHL's intention was to attempt to get an impasse from the US National Labor Relations Board and thus return to action next fall with replacement players.

However, over the past several weeks, my opinion has changed, thanks to my own research and of links sent to me by my readers.

Put simply, getting an impasse from the NLRB would be a tough row to hoe for the NHL. This link provides plenty of reasons why, as well as the potential obstacles that could be thrown up by the NHLPA.

Perhaps the most definitive word comes from the Ottawa Citizen's Allan Panzeri, an excerpt of which can be found on Tom Benjamin's blog, Canucks Corner and I'm re-posting here:

"Neither country will issue work visas to workers who are coming to take the jobs of those on strike or involved in labour disputes, and that includes hockey players.

Such regulations would effectively shrink what is otherwise a global talent pool.

Only United States residents would be able to work for U.S.-based teams, while only Canadian residents would be able to work for Canadian-based teams."

As Benjamin noted, that puts the final nail in the impasse coffin.

So no replacement players, hurray! But the lockout could carry on into next season, boo!

- During the late 1990s and the turn of the century, one of the principal reasons for the struggles of Canadian franchises, particularly those in Western Canada, was the rate of exchange for converting Canadian dollars into US dollars.

Canadian teams make their revenues in Canadian dollars but must pay their players in American dollars.

Unfortunately, during that period, the Canadian dollar fluctuated between .63 to .70 cents, making it extremely difficult for Canadian teams to come up with the money to retain their best players, especially when it was stuck in the mid-sixties.

However, by 2003, the Canadian dollar began to rally against the greenback, to the point where currently this month it's worth approximately .83 cents.

The improving dollar last season was a key reason why all but one Canadian team made money last season, and Calgary Herald reporter Bruce Dowbiggin noted that the Flames and Oilers management admitted the strength of the "loonie" would make it easier to retain players.

That was with the dollar worth between .73 to .76 cents during the 2003-04 season.

One has to wonder, with the dollar now worth .83 cents, if any of those general managers are hoping that rate holds when the lockout is over.

If it should plunge, the Canadian teams will have lost a tremendous opportunity to benefit from the rising loonie.

- For those of you out there who may be labouring under the notion that the NHL is considered a major sports league in the United States, consider the following comments:

First, Albany Times-Union columnist Tim Wilkin, in his "satirical preview of 2005":


The National Hockey League announces there will be no season. Everyone is happy.

To fill the void in programming created by the NHL's absence, ESPN starts showing the World Cup Snowboarding Championships from Maribor, Slovenia, and the World Cup in Luge from Turin, Italy. Network executives are pleased to discover the ratings are higher..


At a news conference, the National Hockey League announces they are still in a lockout. Five media members attend.

The bit about ESPN would be funny...if it weren't for the fact that poker, armwrestling and jump-rope competitions not only being broadcast in lieu of NHL hockey, but are getting better ratings than the NHL did last season.

Or how about this from CNN/SI's Phil Taylor:


NHL commissioner Gary Bettman announces that the league's lockout has forced the cancellation of the entire season, and America's outraged hockey fans unite to picket NHL headquarters in New York. A cop tells them both to go on home.


The hockey season begins when NHL owners and players finally come to an agreement. Residents of Atlanta and Nashville are shocked, but not at the news of the settlement. Seems no one had told them they actually had NHL teams.

As a hockey fan, I should be outraged...but these comments are a little too close to the truth, leading me only to nod in agreement...and these were satires!

- Finally, the National Post this past week commemorated the tenth anniversary of the 1994-95 lockout with a look back at some of the comments made by key individuals during and after the lockout.

So to have a bit of fun, I'll repost those comments and my own take on them, thanks to the benefit of hindsight.

"It's really hard for the average person in North America to understand why athletes complain and bicker over the kind of money they are making. Consequently, the image of our sport is probably going to suffer for a while." -- Wayne Gretzky.

Suffering that continued ten years later. I'm curious, however, as to how Gretzky's finding things on the owners side of the fence this time around? Judging by his remarks made during the WJC earlier this month, he's not enjoying it at all.
- - -
"Because we deal with W's and L's in sports you'll want to know who won and who lost in this. I've got the box score right here: The owners lost. The players lost. The fans lost." -- Tony Kornheiser, in The Washington Post.

Kornheiser is one of the shouting heads on "Pardon the Interruption". His bombastic stylings aside, he hit the nail on the head ten years ago regarding the last lockout and was spot-on with his assessment of the NHL last October.
- - -
"If the NHL players lockout hadn't been settled Wednesday, ESPN's Al
Morganti's idea was to 'have a press conference under a marquee of Dumb and Dumber.'" -- Rudy Martzke, in USA Today.

Perhaps they could call this one, "Dumb and Dumberer"?
- - -
"Having wasted months of blank calendar pages, during which many fans would have walked to Calgary to see a little sports action, now the NHL starts its season right in front of the on-rushing Super Bowl, the biggest athletic event in North America. That should help coverage: City of Miami Prepares for Super Bowl -- Hockey Season Also Begins (see page five)." -- C.W. Nevius, in The San Francisco Chronicle.

There won't be any fear of that this time around. If there is no settlement by next weekend, it's all over, and if there is, the earliest the league could start up is the first full week of February, long after the Super Bowl is over.
- - -
"The NHL will resume play as soon as next week, but it will take far longer
to recover the momentum accrued from its exciting 1994 Stanley Cup playoffs and the sport's growing trendiness among kids. Sports-business experts agree the NHL is in the penalty box with fans and sponsors, condemned to remain in last place among professional sports for the foreseeable future." -- John Helyar, in The Wall Street Journal.

How prescient Mr. Helyar was. His comments are just as applicable now as they were ten years ago.
- - -
"The NHL will be on life support for a while after this. This has been a
near-fatal blow." -- Nye Lavelle, a Dallas-based sports marketer, quoted by The San Francisco Chronicle.

Actually it wasn't a near-fatal blow, but rather one that inflicted slow death upon the league, thanks to the continuing ineptitude of those running the NHL.
- - -
"For half of last year, March to August, Goodenow refused to sit at a table with Bettman and get the negotiation process started. After the season's start was put on ice, he stopped answering the league office's calls. Until this week, the leaders of both sides hadn't even seen fit to meet in over a month. Yes, they both deserve to be Zambonied." -- Kevin B. Blackistone, in The Dallas Morning News.

The more things change, the more things stay the same....
- - -
"The important thing is we are going to have a season and we are going to have a Stanley Cup champion and that's what the fans will remember." -- Brian Bellmore, an NHL governor from Toronto.

So there you have it, hockeyfans, league governors believe you're stupid fans with the attention span of sheep...wonder how many NHL governors will still feel that way if they allow this season to die and the lockout to bite into next season, too?
- - -
"The National Hockey League's new collective bargaining agreement guarantees the control on payrolls that the owners wanted. It also guarantees that by the time this CBA expires, the NHL will no longer be the dominant hockey league in the world." -- Toronto Sun columnist Al Strachan.

Al's taken some flak for those remarks, and while he's one of the worst rumour-mongers in the hockey media, Strachan would've been proven right had the owners used the leverage the last CBA gave them. Sadly for hockey, they didn't, and that's why we're in this mess today.

And yes, dear critics, I hear you going, "there goes Spector again, going on about how its the owners fault!", but you know what, facts are facts. Ignore them at your peril. Those who fail to learn from history are doomed to repeat it.

Where, at any time, have the bunch currently running the NHL and owning NHL franchises given any indication they'll learn from their mistakes? What guarantees do we have that they won't screw up this time?
- - -
"Nothing about this was easy. Everybody's going to have their own feelings, but as time goes on you have to put it behind you. Life goes on. New agreements will have to be reached in the future. It's important to learn from this experience. Both sides will have to realize what happens down the line has to be for the good of everybody involved." -- Adam Graves, then a player rep for the New York Rangers.

Sadly, neither side learned from this experience. Instead of working together, especially at a time when the NHL's popularity in the United States is at a serious low, both sides are engaged in a messy labour war that seriously threatens the NHL's future.
- - -
"Obviously I am thrilled, happy, relieved. You could probably take any
emotion on the spectrum, from high to low ... you would have to conclude it with thrilled." -- NHL commissioner Gary Bettman.

Wonder how Gary's feels now? Does he really give a damn? By the look of things, he's subscribed to the old Vietnam adage that he needs to burn the village in order to save it.
- - -
"Bettman can smile now. Although he could not get the salary cap he was hired by owners to produce and could not get a tax that was to mimic a cap by placing a 'drag' on salary growth, he made a deal that most of his 26 bosses support, albeit with levels of reluctance that say, 'Nobody is really happy with this.' " -- Richard Sandomir, in The New York Times.

Probably because, deep down, they all knew they couldn't trust each other to use the CBA to their advantage. The only ones who were truly happy with the last CBA were the players, their agents, and those big market clubs who spent wildly to acquire the best talent money could buy.


In the wake of Canada's junior players winning gold at this year's World Junior Hockey Championships, the country's dominance in the sport is now seemingly complete.

Over the past five years, Canada has seen its men's Olympic hockey team strike gold for the first time in 50 years and its women's team not only won Olympic gold but also dominated women's international hockey tournaments.

The nation has seen its players win back-to-back World Hockey Championships (2003 and 2004), six of the last ten Spengler Cup tournaments, its Junior teams making the gold medal round of the last four WJC tournaments and its under-18 mens team winning gold in 2003.

Finally, the nation's top professionals were victorious in the 2004 World Cup of Hockey.

Hard to believe that, less than six years ago, Canadians were in the midst of questioning its place in the hockey world.

In August 1999, the Molson Open Ice Summit was held in Toronto to examine "the state of hockey in Canada and to develop concrete recommendations to enhance player development at the grassroots level."

Over 100 "key players in Canadian hockey" from all levels got together for this meeting, and emerged with a series of recommendations for improving the state of the Canadian game.

Now I'm not disparaging this meeting or its recommendations. Indeed, some very good hockey people at Hockey Canada have made notable contributions, particularly Bob Nicholson, whom Matthew Ryder singled out for praise in his latest article.

But this meeting came about not over genuine concern about hockey at the grassroots level but rather in the wake of several defeats for Canada on the international level.

Prior to 1996, few in Canada were worried about their nation's dominance in the sport. But then Canada's professionals were upset in the inaugural World Cup of Hockey in 1996 by Team USA, which planted the first seeds of self-doubt.

Then the highly touted mens team, made up of the country's top NHL players, were eliminated from gold medal competition in the 1998 Winter Olympics by an upstart Czech Republic squad backstopped by future Hall of Fame goalie Dominik Hasek, who was then at the peak of his career.

Its Junior team, meanwhile, after rattling off five straight WJC gold medals and seven in the previous eight years, missed the medal round in 1998 and had to settle for silver in 1999.

Its womens team, also highly favoured to win Gold in the 1998 Nagano Olympics, were upset by the Americans and had to settle for silver.

Meanwhile, in the NHL, more than a few Canadian commentators noted that, by the turn of the century, Canadian players were seemingly less dominant than they'd once been.

Where the NHL was once made up almost entirely of Canadians, they now constituted less than 60 percent of the players.

In 1999, the scoring leaders comprised of only four Canadians - Paul Kariya, Joe Sakic, Theoren Fleury and Eric Lindros. Five others were European and one was American.

A European, Jaromir Jagr, had won the second of his four straight Art Ross trophies that year, as well as the Hart Trophy. In the two previous years, Dominik Hasek won the Hart, as well as the Vezina as the league's top goaltender. The first-ever winner of the Rocket Richard trophy was Teemu Selanne, while the winners of the previous five Calder trophies as the league's top rookies were non-Canadians. The Selke trophy for top defensive forward went to Jere Lehtinen for the second straight year.

Yep, it was a year of hang-wringing in Canada. Their best, so the opinion went, were no longer the best. Something had apparently gone horribly wrong in the way the country was producting hockey players.

The problem, of course, was that for years Canadian players, coaches, managers and fans believed they were the dominant hockey power in the world, so much so they took other nations for granted, often to the point of swaggering over-confidence.

It's a trait that goes back decades, and wasn't really shaken up until the now-legendary 1972 Summit Series between Canada's top NHL players and the Soviet Union's best.

The aftermath of that series, narrowly won by Team Canada thanks to Paul Henderson's last minute heroics, awoke many Canadians to the reality their status as top dog in the hockey world was being challenged.

The crisis of confidence over Canadian hockey in 1999 was not the first one Canadians have gone through.

Prior to the 1984 Canada Cup, there was serious self-doubt about the Canadian hockey programme and the quality of the players it turned out.

Canadian professionals had been beaten by the Soviets in the 1979 Challenge Cup in New York, and then humiliated by them in the 1981 Canada Cup championship game.

Its junior players, meanwhile, kept playing second fiddle to the Soviets, Swedes and Czechs at the WJC, winning only one gold medal in that tournament's first ten years.

Going into the 1984 Canada Cup, few were predicting Team Canada would be victorious, expecting the powerful Soviets to steamroller the Canadians, especially after the Canadian stumbled their way through the round-robin.

Now remember, this was a Canadian team starring future Hall of Famers like Wayne Gretzky, Raymond Bourque, Larry Robinson, Mike Bossy, Paul Coffey,and Mark Messier, and they weren't being given a chance.

The fact this roster beat the Soviets and went on to win the tournament seemed almost miraculous at the time.

Canada's self-confidence in its game and its players started to improve after that, particularly in the thrilling three-game series between Canada and the Soviets in the 1987 Canada Cup.

Once its junior players started rattling off seven WJC titles in a nine-year span, and its top pros dominated the 1991 Canada Cup, that only further stoked confidence in the Canadian game.

Unfortunately, the pendulum swung back towards arrogance by the time of the 1996 World Cup.

Canada was coming off three consecutive Canada Cup victories, their women's teams were dominating international play and finally getting the recognition they deserved both for themselves and women's hockey in general, and Canada's juniors had just won their fourth straight WJC by the time the inaugural World Cup began.

The Canadian Broadcasting Corporation ran promos for the '96 World Cup by showing highlights of Canada's international successes - Henderson's winning goal in the '72 Summit Series, Bossy's OT winner in the '84 Canada Cup, Mario Lemieux and Wayne Gretzky combining to sink the Soviets in the '87 Canada Cup - with the voiceover, "it's OUR game".

The problem by 1996 was Canadians were only taking the Russians seriously as opponents. They still didn't recognize the notable improvements made by Americans, Czechs, Swedes, Finns and Slovaks, even though many of those nations' best players were now among the best players in the NHL.

When the Americans upset Canada to win the World Cup, it was seen as a fluke. Every excuse was found to explain away the loss: Team USA goalie Mike Richter carried the Yanks, the refs allowed Brett Hull's winning goal - knocked in by a high stick -to stand, there were too many older players on Canada's roster.

Rather than acceptance that the Americans deserved to win and were the better team, Canadians wallowed in excuses. It would be different at the Olympics, went their opinion, just you wait and see.

Of course, 1998 is a time Canadian hockey fans would prefer to forget. Their best men couldn't beat a red-hot Dominik Hasek and lost the motivation to even compete for a bronze against the Finns. The women's defeat at the hands of the Americans was just salt to the wound, as was the juniors missing the medal round at the WJC that year.

Those were the factors, not concerns over problems in the developmental hockey programmes, that led to the Open Ice Summit.

It will probably be at least another five years before we'll see if any of the recommendations that were implemented will have any affect on Canadian players in particular and Canadian hockey in general.

But was Canadian hockey really in trouble back in 1999, or was it merely going through a cyclical change?

As noted at the beginning of this article, in the five and a half years since the Open Ice Summit, Canada has emerged once again as the pre-eminent hockey nation.

And while Canadians now comprise barely over half of NHL players, they're starting to dominate the NHL individual awards once again.

In two of the last three years, Canadian players have won the Art Ross - Jarome Iginla in 2002 and Martin St. Louis in 2004.

Of the last five winners of the Hart Trophy, four - Chris Pronger, Joe Sakic, Jose Theodore and Martin St. Louis - were Canadian.

The last three Calder winners - Dany Heatley, Barrett Jackman and Andrew Raycroft - were Canadian, as were the last three Vezina winners as the league's best goalie (Martin Brodeur - twice - and Jose Theodore).

Three of the last five Selke winners were Canadian (Steve Yzerman, Michael Peca and Kris Draper), and over the past five years, Jarome Iginla has twice won the Rocket Richard award, sharing it this season with Ilya Kovalchuk - and fellow Canadian Rick Nash.

Of course Canadians still aren't dominating the scoring race - on average over the past two years five of them have placed in the top ten - but the increase in the amount of individual accolades over the past five years seems to have placated critics.

What's become apparent is that Canadian hockey has recovered from its low period of five years ago.

But Canadians - be they players, coaches, managers, reporters and fans - must also realize that their grip is tenuous. They cannot merely assume the Russians are their only concern in international play, or take other hockey playing nations for granted.

While there is always room for improvement in Canada's hockey programmes, its development system was not the nation's undoing in the hockey world.

Arrogant pride was is the culprit.