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MARCH 2005 SOAPBOX ARCHIVES

March 18- 31

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MARCH 31: DO CONDITIONS FOR AN IMPASSE EXIST?

With the NHL recently filing a complaint against the NHLPA with the US National Labor Relations Board (and another possibly coming on Friday), the talk of the league returning with replacement players in the fall is growing.

It's believed that at the next NHL Board of Governors meeting (April 20th), that issue will be discussed, with or without declaring an impasse.

So how does the league declare an impasse?

According to the good folks at "LawMemo.com", the NHL as an employer has a "duty to bargain" in accordance with the US National Labor Relations Act (NLRA).

However, the NLRA "(doesn't) mandate that either party agree to a proposal or make a concession. Therefore, once the parties make it clear that they remain firm on issues of importance to them, such as wages or benefits, and refuse to accept anything other than their position, an impasse in bargaining is reached. Generally, once impasse has been reached on one or more mandatory subjects of bargaining, an employer may unilaterally implement its pre-impasse proposals."

In other words, the league can declare an impasse and unilaterally implement it's last offer to the PA, which would be the cost certainty offer (salaries to be 54% of revenues) of two weeks ago, since the NHL intends on yanking the non-linkage salary cap on April 8th if it feels the PA isn't willing to engage in serious negotiations.

So what are the conditions whereby the league could declare an impasse?

According to LawMemo.com, some of the conditions are as follows:

-bargaining history of the parties;

- good faith of the parties, which may include: the presence of delaying tactics, unreasonable bargaining demands, efforts to bypass the union, failure to designate an agent, arbitrary scheduling of meetings and whether the employer has withdrawn already agreed-upon provisions;

-Length of negotiations, although no set number of meetings are required;

-Importance of issues on which the parties are deadlocked;

- belief of the parties as to whether impasse exists;

-rejection of a final offer by the rank-and-file union membership;

- union’s rejection of proposals without presentation of counterproposal or requesting more time to negotiate;

- union’s refusal to recommend a final offer to the rank-and-file for ratification;

- union’s withdrawal from negotiations without attempting to schedule more meetings; and

- whether reasonable time existed for the union to review information supplied to it by the employer and analyze its impact on counteroffers.

The bargaining history has been contentious, to say the least, but I don't think that'll be the basis for any declaration of impasse by the league.

The importance of the issues upon which they're deadlocked could come into play. One example is the league wishes to abolish salary arbitration, but the PA wants to maintain it, although they are willing to discuss changes to that system.

There's also the issue of a cap. The PA moved off their contention of never accepting a hard salary cap, once the league offered to remove salary linkage to revenues from the table.

However, the cap number could be seen as a deadlock. The league offered $42.5 million and their lastest dropped to $37.5. The PA last wanted a $49 million cap, and may not accept anything less than $42.5 million. If the league won't come up and the PA won't come down, the basis for impasse might exist based on that point.

If the NHL believes impasses exists, they can declare it. Some feel the league has felt this way since the beginning, but even if that were true, there's no way they could've declared it last summer or last fall and started hiring replacements. They had to allow for sufficient time for negotiation, even at the cost of an entire season. That only buttresses their claim.

The NHLPA refused to put forth the league's "final" offer of February 15th for rank-and-file ratification, so that could also be used by the league to support a declaration of impasse. That being said, however, the league has since made another offer consisting of two proposals, so I think they'll have to signal their intent to make a "last, best offer" before they go this route.

The PA has, however, made proposals and counterproposals throughout this lockout so that couldn't be used as a basis for impasse. The PA has not withdrawn from talks and have had reasonable time to examine all offers from the league.

Remember, not all of these conditions have to be in place for the league to declare an impasse. And two of those conditions - deadlocked on key issues, the PA's unwillingness to put the league's "final" offer in February before a vote of its membership - could provide the basis for a declaration.

Still, that's not necessarily easy to accomplish. As LawMemo points out:

Employers who wish to keep open the “impasse and implementation” strategy must establish a track record of choosing their words carefully. If a party indicates that its position on one issue is flexible and can be traded off for other concessions, there may be no impasse. Moreover, if the last meeting resulted in settlement of some issues or significant movement by either party, it is unlikely that an impasse can be proved.

That's where the NHLPA's upcoming counter-offer could be important. If they move off one issue, say for example salary arbitration in exchange for unrestricted free agency upon completion of entry-level contracts, and the league agreed to this (highly unlikely but never rule anything out), impasse may not hold up if the PA decided to contest it before the National Labor Relations Board (NLRB).

Most likely, however, what could throw a monkey wrench into any impasse plans is if the PA were to agree to a $40 million hard cap. While the PA could expect a lot of negativity from fans and pundits over this ("why the hell didn't they do this earlier?"), it would be a shrewd move if the intent is to blunt impasse to prevent the hiring of replacements.

After all, if the PA said, "OK, a non-linkage cap is acceptable, but at $40 million before benefits and there must be a better system of revenue sharing than those the league has previously offered", the NHL is going to have a difficult time justifying before the NLRB why it didn't come up the $2.5 million.

Of course this may be an simplistic example, but you get the idea. If the PA shows significant movement with their next offer, no impasse may exist.

But if the PA's next offer is merely a rehash of previous offers rejected by the league, then the road to impasse appears clear.

So if it's so easy, why then all the talk about the NHL potentially wishing to avoid that scenario?

Because then it leaves the league open to a complaint from the NHLPA accusing the NHL of failing to negotiate in good faith. Everything regarding that can be found at CBC Sports Online.

What makes this difficult is that the NLRB could rule against the NHL if the PA could prove the league bargained in bad faith. The NLRB could also decide they need more time to rule on the matter and could file an injunction preventing the league from hiring replacements until the Board has had time to consider and rule on the matter.

Thus, it cuts both ways.

If the Board decides to consider the matter without filing an injunction, that works against the PA. Even if the Board ultimately finds in favour of the PA, the amount of time it would take to reach that decision could mean the NHL may be well into next season with replacement players.

But if the Board slaps an injunction on the league while it considers the matter, it could leave any plans by the NHL to use replacements dead in the water, and it could be December 05 or January 06 before the Board makes it's decision. By which time, even if it went in the league's favour, it would be too late to open the season.

The NLRB was staffed with "pro-union" members back in 1995 when it prevented Major League Baseball from bringing in replacements, but this time around, the Board is staffed with "pro-owner" members, which has some observers feeling it would rule for the NHL.

But that, however, is no slam-dunk. Just because the 2005 version of the NLRB is more "pro-business" than it was in 1995 doesn't mean an automatic ruling in favour of the NHL. And it could still find against the NHL if the PA substantiates its case.

Now you know why there's talk from "insiders" of nervousness within the league hierarchy and owners about taking the impasse and replacement route.

We'll find out after April 20th if they'll take that route.

MARCH 30: ODDS N SODS.

- Hats off to Tom Benjamin for amplifying a point I made earlier this week regarding a comment made by Steve Simmons of the Toronto Sun.

Simmons wrote the following:

LET ME get this straight. If an NHL certified agent helps out with the WHA he loses his certification. But if the agent's client, an NHL player, plays in a WHA-sponsored tournament, that's OK. These guys make up their own rules as they go along.

Tom correctly reminded us all that Simmons was referring to Gus Badali, who was decertified by the NHLPA because he was hired to become GM of the Toronto Toros of the WHA. Tom also notes that this isn't unusual, since Pierre Lacroix and Michael Barnett, two former player agents, were decertified when they signed on to become general managers of the Colorado Avalanche and Phoenix Coyotes respectively.

It's called "conflict of interest", something Simmons should probably look into, and as such the PA was within their rights to decertify Badali.

- There's a misconception flying around that the NHLPA's offer to rollback player salaries by 24 percent was their acknowledging the financial problems as claimed by the league in the Levitt Report.

Not true.

At no time when the proposal was made did NHLPA director Bob Goodenow suggest this offer was acknowledgement of the Levitt Report, nor did he say that it was the PA's way of agreeing with the league on its stated financial losses.

Indeed, he dismissed that suggestionwhen reporters asked him about it during the press conference following the PA's rejection of the NHL's December 14th counter-offer.

Those who consider otherwise are merely making their own interpretation.

- "Mikster" over at Hockeytraderumors.com makes an interesting suggestion that those who support the NHLPA in this lockout aren't "real hockey fans".

It's a lengthy piece criticizing those fans who supported big market clubs like the Rangers by applauding their expensive signings but now chiding those same teams for driving up salaries.

He knows his fellow Rangers fans better than I do so I won't get into that part of the argument. What interested me, however, was his closing paragraphs:

I want to get my message across to all you true die hard hockey fans here. The ones that proudly wear the jersey for the logo. If we end up with replacement players, support them. Support the NHL and support the players. In any kind of way.

I support the NHLPA in this dispute because I think they've made the best proposals to address the league's problems, and I don't believe the league is being forthcoming about its problems and proposed resolutions.

But I'm not going to get into all that here. I do think, however, that slamming those who support the PA as not being true hockey fans is a little, shall I say, over the top?

Not all of us who support the PA's position in this lockout were "hypocrites" who cheered salary escalation signings by our favourite teams but then slammed them once the lockout happened.

I have no problem with NHL fans who want to go out and support the league with replacement players. It's your choice, fill your boots.

BUT!

If the NHL ices replacement players, drawn primarily from the ranks of non-NHLPA affiliated players in North America (because immigration laws won't allow Europeans to be hired under that scenario), and the teams don't lower ticket, concession and parking prices to match the second-class talent on the ice, then I think you're being a sucker.

Would you pay big market prices for minor league talent? I certainly wouldn't. Even if I supported the owners in this lockout, I'd insist that they chop those prices in half.

If not, screw you, buddy, see ya when you bring the real talent back, not some amateurs playing dress-up.

And besides, wouldn't Sidney Crosby be thrilled to sign up with an NHL team, if it so happens that all 2005 draftees are UFA's, and play against players he can compete more with? You have college players who'd sign up to play in the NHL tomorrow if they could. Even Canadian junion league players would.

It's not as easy as that. First of all, Crosby has already said he won't play as a replacement. Or rather, his agents have made that point quite succinctly. Crosby initially said he would, but his agents quickly explained just how much he'd stand to lose if he did, and he changed his mind.

See, many of the top junior and collegiate players are represented by NHLPA-certified agents. And if those agents advise their clients not to sign as replacement players, but instead consider other options until a new CBA with the NHLPA is in place, then you're not going to see that many of the best prospects toiling in an "RNHL".

- Oh, and as the Hockey Rodent reminded us all this past weekend,

If you have hockey with replacement players... heck, with any players - even those with NHLPA secret decoder rings - you have got a CBA in place. I can guarantee you that much. Read my lips. You cannot have replacement players without a CBA in place...

And if a CBA exists, then there can be an Entry Draft...

But let there be no doubt that hockey and the Entry Draft go hand-in-hand. You either have both, or you have neither....

In other words, the NHL will declare an impasse, and unilaterally impose their last, best and final offer to the NHLPA as the CBA. It will be under that plan whereby teams will sign replacement players...and a draft will be held.

- I'm not one who considers himself resistant to change, but bigger nets? Sorry, I pass.

Here's a novel thought: why not reduce the size of the goalie equipment?

The nets have been the same size for decades. Hall of Famers from Maurice Richard to Gordie Howe to Bobby Hull to Bobby Orr to Guy Lafleur to Mike Bossy to Wayne Gretzky to Mario Lemieux never had any trouble finding the back of it a lot.

Why?

Because those tending those nets didn't look like the Michelin Man!

Oh, yeah, and all of those players, except for Gretzky and Lemieux in the twilight years of their careers, never had to battle through uncalled obstruction passing for "defensive hockey".

Just a thought...

 

MARCH 29: KEEPING SCORE ON QUALITY OFFERS.

"If you’re keeping score as to who is and who is not trying to craft a new CBA, keep in mind that six out of the last eight proposals put on the table came from the NHL not the NHLPA." - Stan Fischler, March 22nd, 2005.

But it's quality, not quantity, that counts.

The NHLPA led off negotiations with their June 2003 offer, centered around a luxury or payroll tax proposal, along with proposed changes to arbitration, entry-level salaries and bonuses, a five percent wage rollback and revenue sharing.

That was promptly rejected by NHL Commissioner Gary Bettman, who then according to the NY Post waited until October 2003 to let the owners know about it.

The NHL then waited 13 months, through an entire off-season and the 2003-04 regular season and playoffs, and the June 2004 entry draft, before tabling a counter-offer, containing six "system concepts", with the league claiming only one of them called for an outright salary cap. However, they were all tied to cost certainty, meaning player salaries were to be tied to revenues. In other words, six systems of "linkage".

The PA rejected those concepts, and negotiations continued off-and-on until September 10th, when the PA presented another offer to the league, a "four-point framework features a luxury tax, player salary rollbacks, changes to the Entry Level System, and a revenue-sharing plan."

It was essentially the same offer as their first one, only with some tweaking to the level when the luxury tax would kick in and how sharp that tax bite would be.

As with their first offer, it was promptly rejected by the league, and the lockout began on September 15th, 2004.

For the next three months, little progress was made and no further offers came from other side, until December 9th, when the NHLPA made an offer based around a stunning 24% salary rollback.

That caught everyone in the hockey world off-guard, and had the league scrambling to reply by December 14th with a counter-offer that accepted the rollback but called for a redistribution, yet essentially dismissed most of the rest of the players' offer, insisting again on a cost certainty system.

After that, there were no talks between the two sides until mid-January, when talks reopened at the request of NHLPA president Trevor Linden. For two weeks in late January both sides met without NHL Commissioner Gary Bettman or NHLPA Director Bob Goodenow in attendance.

Discussions were held and there was much speculation as to what was bandied about, but in the end "philosophical differences" remained. The league did discuss offering what NHLPA spokesman Ted Saskin called "multi-layered salary cap proposals", which the PA rejected.

The league came forward several days later on February 2 in Newark, with a written proposal which contained what the PA called "minor variations" of what was discussed several days prior, which again were rejected.

While there were some interesting proposals made in that February 2nd offer, what primarily killed that deal was the league's insistence on eliminating the salary arbitration mechanism in its entirety at any time during the term of the Agreement by converting age of eligibility for Group 3 Free Agency to 28.

That, of course, would've meant those players coming out of entry-level contracts, usually around the age of 22, would then be stuck for the next five or six years with no real right to renegotiate their salaries, essentially at the mercy of their respective general managers and whatever they wanted to offer.

And, of course, it would've meant the league could do that at any time, probably within the first year of the new CBA.

On February 9th, the league made another proposal, based around four "economic triggers" that would see the CBA revert to the league's February 2nd offer.

Those triggers, however, were set in such a way that all it would take was six teams to overspend on payroll to set one of them off.

That, of course, was rejected by the NHLPA.

What followed after that was a meeting with the US Federal Mediation & Conciliation Service (FMCS) on February 13th ,which failed to result in any resolution.

With the cancellation of the season staring both sides in the face, back-channel methods were employed by the league and the association to get a last-minute, season-saving deal in place.

That led to the shocking news the night of February 14th that both sides, without Bettman or Goodenow involved in talks, had agreed to move off their main sticking points.

The league offered a salary cap without linking salaries to revenues, believed set around $40 million. The association agreed to accept a salary cap without linkage, albeit one set over $50 million.

After frantic hours of talks throughout that night and into the next day, February 15th, the league came forward with it's "final offer": a hard cap set at $44.7 million ($42.5 mil plus $2.2 million in benefits).

The PA countered with a $49 million cap limit, centered around payroll taxes for clubs that spent over set limits starting at $43 million, but it was rejected by the league.

On February 16th, 2005, Bettman cancelled the season.

A month later, the league made another offer to the PA with two proposals: cost certainty set at 54% of revenues or a delinked hard cap set at $37.5 million.

The PA, while not rejecting either proposal outright, declined to comment and instead agreed to discuss the matter during a three-day meeting of its player executive.

So that's where we stand at this point, awaiting the PA's next move.

If we're going to keep score on the number of offers made, here's how it went:

- PA makes first offer, June 03. 1-0 PA.

- NHL makes counter-offer, July 04. 1-1.

- PA makes second offer, September 04. 2-1 PA

- PA makes third offer, December 04. 3-1 PA

- NHL makes counteroffer, December 04. 3-2 PA.

- NHL makes new offer, February 3, 05. 3-3

- NHL makes "compromise" offer, February 9, 05 4-3 NHL.

- NHL and PA make offers, February 14, 05. 5-4 NHL.

- NHL makes "final offer", February 15, 05. 6-4 NHL.

-PA makes counteroffer, February 15, 05. 6-5 NHL.

- NHL makes offer, March 17th 05. 7-5 NHL.

So it would seem to date the NHL has made the most offers, but remember what I said earlier about quality over quantity.

The PA's September offer was little more than a rehash of their initial offer from June 2003 and should be taken out of the equation.

The NHL's "compromise offer" of February 9th essentially set a narrow system of economic triggers that would see the CBA revert to their February 2nd proposal. That gets kicked to the curb.

The league's "final offer" of February 15th merely increased the cap level of the previous day's offer by $2 million. Eliminate that one.

I would've eliminated the PA's counteroffer to the league's "final offer" were it not for the introduction of stiff payroll taxes on teams that spent beyond $43 million. Those taxes had real "bite" to them and would off-set the league's piddling revenue-sharing scheme involving a pool of playoff revenue.

Finally, the league's last offer was merely a return to their previous offers of cost certainty or a delinked cap set at lower levels than their last offer. Nothing new or anything of real substance here.

That readjusts the score to a dead-even 4-4.

Again, it's not how often you make offers, but what's contained in them that count.

There's been some good proposals from both sides, which could've "formed the framework of an agreement"...if the league and the PA were truly willing to negotiate a new deal.

- Wanna see a truly dazzling goal? Check out this link, courtesy of Dave Caldwell, and be prepared to have your mind blown!

MARCH 28: POINT/COUNTERPOINT.

- Al Strachan of the Toronto Sun believes Jarome Iginla is making a mistake by not playing for Team Canada in the upcoming World Championships.

He bases this on Iginla's media-friendly personality, his leadership and his previous contributions for Canada at the international level.

But with rights come responsibilities, and the other side of the coin is that if you perform well for Team Canada, you are expected to be available next time.

Granted, participation in Austria is not convenient for Iginla.

But participation in these events is never convenient.

In Iginla's case, there are two issues -- a scheduled tonsillectomy and a baby.

But the continued existence of his tonsils isn't exactly life-threatening, and if Iginla's wife and baby want to join him in Austria, Hockey Canada's family program will make sure they enjoy themselves.

It wasn't always convenient for Wayne Gretzky to pull on the Canadian sweater every time the country decided to take part in an international competition.

But he always did it because he managed to overcome his inherent modesty long enough to recognize that he was the key player in the game and the man around whom the program could be built and prosper.

If Iginla were to look at it from a selfish point of view, he would realize that today, he is the closest thing we have to Gretzky, and that Team Canada involvement can only enhance his image.

In the process, it will enhance his value on the open market.

But those considerations aside, Iginla should be encouraged to realize that in today's game, he is the man.

Strachan makes some good points, but he overlooks the most obvious: Iginla hasn't played a meaningful game since last September's World Cup of Hockey championship match.

I'm sure he's done what he can to stay in shape, but he's not in game-shape, and any player will tell you that makes all the difference in the world.

There are plenty of talented Canadians (Joe Thornton, Rick Nash, Daniel Briere, Dany Heatley, Martin St. Louis, Vinny Lecavalier) who've spent most or all of this lockout playing in Europe who'll be in much better game condition to represent Team Canada, especially since they've had that time to get used to the European rinks.

Iginla's not being selfish, he's being sensible, and no one should dare question his integrity because he's using common sense.

-Steve Simmons, another Toronto Sun columnist, lambasts the NHLPA's policy regarding player agents:

LET ME get this straight. If an NHL certified agent helps out with the WHA he loses his certification. But if the agent's client, an NHL player, plays in a WHA-sponsored tournament, that's OK. These guys make up their own rules as they go along.

Hmmm, I don't recall hearing that one, so for now I'll take Simmons' at his word.

Still, since it was the player agents who negotiated deals for their clients to sign up in Europe during the lockout, I don't think there's any inconsistency here.

Besides, it's a two-week tournament, one that is likely to stir up about as much fan interest as the short-lived OSHL did last fall.

And let's face it, these players aren't going to sign up long-term with a WHA that has about as much chance of getting off the ground as the NHL has of agreeing to a CBA with meaningful revenue sharing.

- Yes, it's "Pick on the Sun Columnists" day here at Spector's Hockey, as Chris Stevenson of the Ottawa Sun weighs in on the NHLPA's executive committee's choice of Pebble Beach to conduct it's recent three-day meeting:

After meeting for a number of days here at Pebble Beach, we have come up with a couple of important conclusions we would like to share with you:

1. We remain committed to fighting the idea of a salary cap in any way, shape or form.

2. We would like there also to be a cap on the number of balls you can lose on the 18th hole at the Pebble Beach Golf Links. When you're not working, that can get expensive.

Fore!

Larry Brooks of the NY Post also reported on the subject yesterday, claiming some players were upset at the executive's choice of location.

To which I say: Yawn.

It really doesn't matter where the NHLPA executive, or for that matter the NHL Board of Governors, decides to hold a meeting. This is being blown out of proportion by a media obviously bored over the lack of progress in this labour dispute.

Not that I can blame them, but there's bigger issues to take both sides to task over than the location of their meetings.

That's not news, that's sensationalism and in my mind, lazy journalism.

And any players who are upset over the location need to stop whining.

Unless these guys were merely lounging around doing the square root of bugger-all, and nothing comes out of it to continue negotiations, then fine, get upset.

But until proven otherwise, to quote Shakespeare, this is "much ado about nothing".

Stevenson also took time to chide the players for their desire of a free market economy:

One of the statements NHL players make when they are asked why they are so against a salary cap is they want a free-market economy where market forces determine their salaries. Translated, that means they want owners like those of the New York Rangers to be free to throw money at them.

Well, have they not seen what a free-market economy produces these days?

Without the NHL this season, the global free market sees the best of them getting no more than $3 million for an admittedly shorter season in Europe.

Most of them are playing for much less than that away from family and the creature comforts of life in North America (charter flights, five-star hotels and a generous per diem).

This has nothing to do with a "global free market" and everything to do with the NHL market value.

The players merely want the right to get the best value they can for their services, and while many have undoubtedly overpriced their value over the years, it was always the owners of all the teams that willingly signed those paycheques, based on contracts negotiated on their behalf by their general managers.

They've always set the market value and always will, regardless of whatever system they impose.

It always - ALWAYS - comes back to the owners, and while their supporters claim they're trying to improve the system and the manner by which they do business, in actual fact this is about limiting the power of the players association, and not any real plans to improve the system.

There is nothing - NOTHING - in the NHL's offers to the NHLPA that will change the system as we know it, other than to cap the salaries of the players.

They claim this will "fix their broken system". That of course is pure hogwash.

Let's imagine a $37.5 million cap is imposed by the NHL. The big market teams will continue to spend the most, and they'll find ways via capologists, player agents or their own savvy to locate loopholes in that cap system to circumvent any hard cap.

After all, they did it with the entry-level cap system in the previous CBA, so what's stopping them from doing so with an overall cap?

The small market clubs, those who had payrolls close to that level last season, will not spend up to that level. Salaries will be lower, but those of the best players will by no means be more affordable, especially without meaning revenue-sharing.

The salaries of the rank-and-file will substantially drop, but the very best will continue to be highly paid, even if their salaries don't get up quite as high as they did under the previous CBA.

If small markets couldn't make a go of it with payrolls over $30 million, how are they going to do better with a $37.5 million cap? How are they going to retain their best players? How will they make competitive bids for the best free agent players?

They can't and they won't, because the market value will once again be determined by the big market teams, who'll continue to pillage the rosters of the small market clubs.

The players wanted a luxury tax system that would help small market clubs, as well as better revenue sharing. This wasn't done out of noble intent but rather to ensure that all teams could afford to spend up to a cap ceiling thus minimizing the overall impact of a hard cap upon their salaries.

They still want market value, but are accepting that that value will have to be reduced. What they don't want, however, is a system that will adversely impact the majority of them by driving down the salaries of the average players.

Tom Benjamin has a much better take on this at his blog.

- Finally, the Los Angeles Times reported Wayne Gretzky has put his LA home up for sale (asking price: $25 million, considered a "fixer-upper". OK,just kidding about the last part).

He's maintaining his residence in Scottsdale, Arizona, which makes sense since he's helping to run the Phoenix Coyotes and recently signed a contract extension with the team.

But the Times and other media outlets are speculating The Great One might bolt for the New York Rangers:

There has been speculation that he would be asked to run the New York Rangers. Gretzky, 44, played for the Rangers after he left the L.A. Kings.

Sportsnet. ca added to the speculation:

With the house being placed on the market, rumours continue to fly about Gretzky heading to New York to help his old boss, Glenn Sather try to return the Rangers to glory.

Why the hell should Gretzky do that? Unless, of course, there were a better chance to rebuild the Rangers because there would be more money available to do so, even under a hard cap system, than there would be in Phoenix to build and maintain the Coyotes?

And the potential legal problems facing one of the 'Yotes owners wouldn't be a factor, would it?

Now, now, Spector, don't get into tabloid journalism here. Gretzky returning to the Big Apple is probably only wishful thinking on the part of a few bored pundits.

Besides, as reader and contributor Paul Gheduzzi observed, "I believe that given the current problems with Cablevision (whether the Dolans' feud may mean selling the team and other MSG properties despite Jim Dolan liking Gretzky as an executive), the uncertainty of the CBA and the Rangers' direction, I'm unsure how serious #99 going to the Rangers really is."

MARCH 27: NEWS AND NOTES.

-Check out the following comments from LA Kings president Tim Leiweke in yesterday's LA Times: (WARNING: HIGH SNARK CONTENT).

And there's an enormous amount of conviction and planning toward the fan. The fan has become a high priority for us and we can't abuse that trust…

Sorry, Tim, but you, the guy you work for, the owners of the other 29 teams, the league headquarters, the commissioner, the players, the agents, the NHLPA director and the NHLPA hierarchy all abused that trust when you engaged in this stupid, myopic labour dispute.

Instead of waging war with each other, you should've gotten a deal in place before the start of the 2004-05 season and then focus your energies on rebuilding your product.

But now that this dispute will probably carry on into next season, now you suddenly remembered that the fan is a high priority.

Please, spare us the rhetoric. You guys didn't give a damn about the fans before and you don't give a damn now. The only reason you're concerned is because you realize you run the risk of losing a significant number of what you guys consider as walking ATM machines who come to your arenas and plunk down outrageously high prices to watch your product.

"Fans want to see guys who are hard-working and grounded and decent. Fans want to see a competitive team that works hard."

Fans want to see NHL calibre players playing a more exciting brand of NHL hockey than that which they've suffered through over the past decade, and they don't want to pay high prices for the privilege. THAT'S what fans want, Tim.

"We've got a moment in time here to maybe get sports back on track, and I'd certainly like to do that."

No, Tim, that moment, at least for NHL hockey, was a year ago, You and everyone else involved in this lockout have lost that moment, the sport is off-track and will likely remain so for some time, and you're jading the folks you rely on for your livelihood: the fans.

I'm excited about it.

You're in a distinct minority.

"There may be those that fear the future. I'm not one of them," he said. "We're going to make good decisions economically and get a partnership with the fans."

So, after years of bad decisions, we're to trust you people to magically start making good economic decisions?

If you wanna get a partnership with the fans, then first and foremost, stop lying to us that a salary cap is going to cure the league's ills. It won't, and you know it, not without real revenue sharing the way it's done in the NFL.

The big market teams will still spend the most, and some will find legally creative ways to skirt a cap to do it. Smaller markets won't spend up to the cap limit, meaning they'll continue to struggle to retain their best players, because they either can't or won't spend what they need to do so unless there's a better system of revenue sharing implemented.

- Regardless of the NHL's filing an unfair labour practice complaint with the NLRB against the NHLPA, the association should still come forward with a counter-offer to the league's offers from two weeks ago.

It would be tempting for them not to bother, to essentially tell Gary Bettman and the owners to take a flying leap because of that complaint, but if this is heading toward a showdown in the labour courts, which by the league's filing their complaint appears to indicate is the eventuality, then it would be to the PA's advantage to continue negotiating. Even if the "negotiations" appear to be nothing more than a smokescreen.

The rationale is quite simple, to take away any ammunition the league could use in its own defence if and when the PA files a bargaining in bad faith complaint with the NLRB should Bettman go with impasse and give teams the green light to hire replacement players.

This filing by the league, based on the PA's apparent policy that any PA member who becomes a replacement player would have to repay their lockout monies, is small-potatoes, intended to drive a wedge between those lower-paid players who might consider returning as replacements and those higher-paid refusing to do so.

It could also play into the league's hands if the players decide not to negotiate any further based on the complaing filed against them by the NHL.

The bigger deal would be the bad faith complaint, and the best way for the PA to bolster their case would be to keep, or attempt to keep, negotiating with the league.

- As for the league's potentially filing another complaint against the PA regarding decertification of player agents who negotiate contracts for replacement players, Larry Brooks of the NY Post has an interesting bit that might work against the league:

The league is also preparing to file another unfair labor practice against the union for its threat to decertify agents who represent "replacement" players in yet another effort to undermine labor solidarity.

While we, too, have serious questions about the ethics of such an NHLPA policy — the representatives' fiduciary responsibility, after all, is to their clients, and not to the union of which agents are not members — management's attempted intrusion on labor policy is every bit as unsettling. A challenge to this policy should be raised by a player agent, not by an attorney acting as an agent of the league.

But this contemplated action is merely another manifestation of the league's effort to wrest agent certification away from the union. Indeed, in his July 23, 2004 letter to Bob Goodenow, obtained by The Post, Bettman says of Article 6 of the old CBA that grants agent certification unilaterally to the PA: "Based on our experiences during the term of the Current CBA, we believe this provision needs updating."

Updating, presumably, that would allow the league to certify player agents. How nice for management to choose those with whom to negotiate.

- Finally, on an upbeat note, since it is Easter, today in Spector's VCR will be Game Six of the 1974 Stanley Cup Finals between the Philadelphia Flyers and Boston Bruins.

The Flyers would win this game and their first Stanley Cup 1-0, courtesy of a Rick MacLeish tip-in of an Andre "Moose" Dupont point shot.

If you saw that score for a Cup-clinching game today, you'd be convinced it was the usual dull, plodding trapping matchup and pass on watching a re-broadcast or the highlight.

Not so with this game. There were offensive chances aplenty, particularly from the desperate Bruins, who were hoping to tie the series and send it back to the old Boston Garden for the defensive seventh game.

What kept this game a low-scoring affair was the acrobatic goaltending of Philly's Bernie Parent and Boston's Gilles Gilbert. One save in particular has always stood out in my memory, and that's Parent's kick-save on a Ken Hodge slapshot from the top of the faceoff circle that was absolutely labeled for inside the lower right hand side of the net.

Parent's lightning-fast reflexes on that one, one of the best kick-saves I've ever seen, kept the Bruins from tying and perhaps changing the complexion of the game.

There's also a bitch-slapping contest between Bobby Orr and Bobby Clarke in the first period that is hilarious to watch but at the time wasn't funny to either guy.

Orr and Clarke would tangle again late in the third period, where the referee would Orr for holding, forcing the Bruins into a penalty-killing situation with just over two minutes remaining in the game.

You'd never see a referee in today's game calling a holding penalty late in a Stanley Cup final game, particularly since Orr's holding, although blatant, was brief and would've been ignored by today's officials. It was a gutsy call by veteran and one-day Hall of Fame ref Art Skov.

MARCH 26:NHL TESTING THE NHLPA'S UNITY.

As reported by CP and TSN last night, negotiations between the NHL and NHLPA seemingly worsened when the league filed an unfair labour practice complaint againt the PA with the US National Labor Relations Board (NLRB).

The basis for the complaint is "the NHLPA's apparent policy that any NHLPA member who were to become a replacement player next season would have to re-pay the lockout ''stipend'' he is currently receiving from the union.

This stipend or lockout benefit figure is estimated to be in the $10,000 a month range per player. Any NHLPA member is eligible to receive the benefit, but media reports have suggested players have been told they would be forced to give back any benefit monies if they became replacement players for the league next season.

NHL executive vice-president Bill Daly described the NHLPA policy as "coercive" and in violation of "the players' rights under the labour laws to decide individually whether to be represented by a union."

Say what you will about Daly and commissioner Gary Bettman, but give them credit where it's due. They're two wily, shrewd individuals.

This complaint had to have caught the PA off-guard, as it did hockey fans and media.

Everyone anticipated the PA would be first out of the blocks with the NLRB if the league opted to either declare an impasse and ice replacements or attempt the latter without declaring the former.

For PR purposes, the shock effect works for the league in the short term.

It also serves to cast legal light upon the NHLPA's internal policies. It may not be easy to prove that the PA has told players if they become replacements they'll have to pay back their benefit monies, but the point is, for however long it takes for the NLRB to rule on this, it puts the NHLPA on the defensive in the legal battle right off the bat.

Of course, that would be negated if the league does go with replacement players, as the PA's complaint on that would level the playing field, but for now, it serves a useful purpose for the NHL.

Ultimately, the league has to prove that the PA is being "coercive". If there's nothing "set in stone", or on paper indicating NHLPA members would have to pay back their lockout benefits if they became replacements, the NLRB could rule against the league.

Even if it comes to naught, it'll serve the league by distracting the PA hierarchy, even if the distraction is a minor one.

This also serves as a legal shot across the PA's bow. For months we've heard that the NHLPA would file a complaint with the NLRB accusing the league of bargaining in bad faith should the league decide to use replacement players.

This is the league's way of demonstrating to the players that they, too, can take the PA to task before the NLRB. It wouldn't surprise me in the least if the league declares an impasse and then files the same "bad-faith" complaint against the PA.

It also serves as a warning shot to the players. It's telling them to get a negotiated deal in place by the timeframe allotted by the league, or be prepared for this to drag on via the labour courts, possibly into next season.

In other words, it's a pressure tactic, designed to force the players to give serious consideration toward what the immediate future could hold if a deal isn't soon negotiated.

That leads into the most obvious fact of this complaint by the league: another shot at trying to divide the players association.

The league has assumed for some time that Goodenow has used threats and coercion to keep his 700-plus membership onside. Time will tell how much truth there is in that, but if there is some truth to it, this could be a major blow to the players unity if the NLRB rules against them.

The league has long believed that the majority of players, particularly the lowest paid, want to come back and play, but are being kept by Goodenow and the more influential, higher paid players from doing so.

That's why in their December counter-offer to the PA's stunning 24% salary rollback proposal, Bettman proposed that the highest paid should give back the most while the lower paid should give back little or nothing.

It was a great PR move (and one of the few league proposals I wholeheartedly endorsed over the course of this lockout), but one which the majority of players took as an obvious attempt to divide the association, to pit the lower paid majority against Goodenow and the higher-paid players.

That's why in the weeks leading up to the cancellation of the 2004-05 season, we heard critics of the PA suggesting Goodenow was afraid of putting the league's offers before the players for a vote because the majority of players would accept them.

This of course was based on unnamed sources quoting unnamed or unknown players, but even if there weren't much truth to this, it was again another attempt by the league at dividing the players.

The league's belief in this had to be further stoked by the attempts of a handful of the higher-paid players and reps, among them Jeremy Roenick, Chris Pronger, Jarome Iginla and Robert Esche, to broker a back-channel deal with Bettman and Daly mere days before the cancellation of the season.

Of course, the fact that none of those players were from the lower paid group and that many players were quite upset with those aforementioned peers for attempting to use back-door tactics to get a deal done shouldn't be lost on anyone.

Still, it may be taken by the league as proof that there may be a sufficient faction of players willing to sign off on the league's "cap without linkage" offer that are being held in check by Bob Goodenow.

There are undoubtedly a good number of players who feel the league's latest offers were worth playing for, who'll also probably give serious consideration to becoming replacements.

But remember, coercion and threats only go so far. There are influential veteran players amongst the PA's ranks who were around during the "gory years" of Alan Eagleson's reign as NHLPA director. They remember only too well Eagleson's bully-boy tactics, so it's difficult to believe they're going to stand for the same thing again from someone else, even if that someone is the man who successfully guided them through the 1992 players strike and the 1994-95 lockout.

Perhaps I'm being naive, but I simply don't buy into the theory, as floated numerous times by league media cheerleaders like Stan Fischler, that the players are too stupid to know what they're doing and are being led by the nose by Goodenow.

There are simply too many of them, far smarter than those who came before them. If there were a sufficient number of them willing to take the league's latest offers, they would publicly push for a vote on the matter and put pressure on Goodenow and the players executive.

If that were to happen, it would be for Goodenow like trying to plug holes in a leaking, crumbling dike. It would be overwhelming.

Thus, this complaint against the PA by the league is merely another attempt at probing their armour by Bettman and the owners.

Ditto the possibility that the league could file another unfair labour practices complaint against the PA regarding player agents who represent replacement players.

The NHLPA has indicated to its certified player agents that any agent who would negotiate a contract on behalf of a replacement player next season would be in danger of losing his NHLPA certification. The agent who spoke to TSN said he has been told the league believes that the NHLPA's threat of decertification to the agents is an ''unfair labor practice'' and that the NHL is prepared to file a complaint over it with the NLRB.

But NHL team sources say they've only been notified on the filing of one grievance to this point.

As with the players, the league obviously feels Goodenow is using threats to keep agents in line. At first glance, it does look bad that the PA would decertify agents who negotiated replacement players contracts for clients.

But wouldn't it make more sense for the league to file that complaint with the NLRB, rather than going after the PA for supposedly "coercive" tactics that could be based more on hearsay than hard fact?

Perhaps the league prefers upsetting the players more than their agents?

Or perhaps, given the circumstances of the lockout and, should it come to pass, the league's attempts to use replacement players, this one may not be easy to win.

If so, that could be a more potentially dangerous move by the league. Even if the NLRB ruled againt the PA, most agents are unlikely to broker replacements deals, for the very simple fact that they won't want to risk upsetting the rest of their respective client bases.

While some agents aren't happy with the direction of this lockout, most are united with Goodenow. They also compete against each other for clients. It would be shortsightedly stupid for an agent to negotiate replacement player contracts for several clients, only to run the risk of losing to other player agents more valuable clients who'd consider his actions a betrayal.

It'll be interesting to see what the response from the PA, the players and the agents will be to all of this.

Finally, however, we mustn't lose sight of the fact that these filings could be the league tipping its hand as to where things go from here.

If these complaints are to serve merely as a pressure tactic, it's not going to work. Most likely this probably means that this latest round of negotiations was nothing more than a smokescreen towards the league's true intentions: going with replacement players for next season, impasse or not.

Which means it's going to be a very long summer, and we're all going to learn more about labour laws than most of us ever cared to.

MARCH 25: WHOLE LOTTA NOTHIN' GOIN' ON.

- So the NHL cancelled the 2005 Entry Draft yesterday.

Folks, this isn't news. We knew this was coming because negotiations, such as they are, were still going on between the NHL and NHLPA, and the league had to confirm hotel and flight bookings into Ottawa very soon if this was going to go off as planned.

With no deal in place, and it looking as though there won't be one, they had no choice but to cancel it.

But if a deal gets in place later this spring, the draft will be held via conference call between the 30 teams.

Won't be as exciting, but at least those kids won't have to wait until next June if a new CBA is signed at some point this year.

Still, this was supposed to be Sidney Crosby's coming-out party, with the fans jamming the Corel Centre in anticipation of the picks and of course, of the trades that always comes with the draft weekend.

At this point, I can't see hockey fans, even those in Ottawa, being too upset as they've known for some time this cancellation was coming. As long as this stupid labour dispute continued, there was no way the draft would go off as per normal.

- Seems the NHLPA executive committee spent their three-day meeting in Pebble Beach. This was sent in to me by regular contributor "Go Sharks" who considers this a slap in the face to hockey fans, as it could be interpreted to mean the players on the committee were more interested in their golf game than in considering the league's latest offer and making a counter-offer.

To which I responded, "Like the actions of both sides that resulted in the cancellation of this season wasn't a slap in the face of hockey fans?"

It doesn't matter where the players, or the owners for that matter, stage their meetings, for it they aren't getting a deal done, what difference does it make?

None at all, friends, none at all.

- Earlier this month both Eric at Off Wing and James Mirtle had segments on the players they most hated.

Now "hate" is a strong word, one that should probably be reserved for the true assclowns of the world.

Still, even I have to confess there were players whom, because of their on-ice antics, I hated.

So my candidates, and there are two, are Ulf Samuelsson and Claude Lemieux.

Away from the ice, I'm sure they're decent guys and family men and so on, but on the ice, they played dirty and their tactics disgusted me.

Samuelsson's cheap shot on Cam Neely and Lemieux's running Kris Draper from behind were the two most notable examples.

I'm not a fan of dirty play and cheap shots, but I wasn't upset when Tie Domi knocked Samuellson out with a sucker punch during a regular season game in 1995-96 (I think that was the season).

And Darren McCarty of the Wings gave Lemieux some payback during the now infamous March '97 brawl between the Wings and Colorado Avalanche, but their battle was overshadowed by the tilt between goaltenders Patrick Roy and Mike Vernon.

I have no time for dirty players, and those two were dirty. I wasn't sorry to see them retire and hope to Buddha we'll never see their like again.

- Today in Spector's VCR: Game Five of the 1994 Stanley Cup Finals between the NY Rangers and Vancouver Canucks, and Game Five of the 1984 Patrick Division Semi-Final between the Rangers and NY Islanders.

I've been burning my old VCR tapes to DVD, so it's given me a great excuse to sit back and enjoy classic NHL games while I'm off from work this week.

I'm not a fan of either team, but I appreciate great hockey regardless of which teams are playing it, and those two games were among the best I've ever seen.

Back and forth action, awesome scoring chances, great goaltending (or in the Rangers-Canucks tilt, there was until the final period) and just overall excitement.

It's games like those that can make a casual hockey fan a die-hard fan of the sport.

They also serve as reminders of what little excitement we've seen in the NHL, and that includes the playoffs, since the Rangers and Canucks staged their classic war for the Cup in '94.

MARCH 24: HAPPY BIRTHDAY TO ME EDITION.

- I'm 42 years old today. Physically I don't feel a day above 30, and mentally, some days I don't feel a day over 18.

The tough part about being this age is, the mind is still willing to try to do the things it used to do at the tempo of youth, but the body just doesn't have the stamina for it anymore.

So, now that I'm firmly sequestered in middle age, I do things in moderation now, which means life can be a lot less painful.

I've been keeping my eyes open for symptoms of "mid-life crisis", but thankfully they haven't materialized. I doubt they ever will. My youth was an exciting one, full of travel and fun and adventure, so I don't feel like I've missed out on anything. And after fourteen years of matrimony I still have a fun, loving, happy relationship with my wife, who's a very special, wonderful woman (she has to be to put up with me!) so I don't have the urge to stray.

Besides, for all the living I packed into my younger days, they were also many awkward and occasionally dark times. I'm much happier now at this point in my life than at any time in my youth.

Call it the sophistication of maturity.

All I need now is for the NHL and NHLPA to get their act together, get a new CBA signed and make some real progress in rebuilding their shattered reputations, and life will be complete!

- I recently commented on a post on Tom Benjamin's blog regarding the attitudes of Canadian fans toward the lockout.

Tom's common sense agreed with my take, however, he was rather harsh on the mainstream hockey media:

However, it won't be so obvious when the media tune is "Okay, so the new system isn't perfect. It is still way better than the old system... and what about those shootouts? Aren't they great?" If they repeat anything often enough it will become common nonsense, too.

Hands up those who think the hockey media will sell replacement players in Canada? Me, too. Will they stoop low enough to hype the Toronto Maple No Names? No doubt.

Some in the media, particularly the broadcast media, will have to sell the league with replacement players. They too lost money during the lockout and will want to recoup the losses.

Thus, they'll hype up the return of the NHL, although it'll be funny to watch those networks doing so with no marketable, recognizable faces and names in the ads if the league opts for replacements.

That being said, however, there will be many voices, both in print and broadcast media, who aren't going to buy into the replacement player concept, and they won't be quiet in doing so.

I know I won't be. As a freelancer for Foxsports.com, I intend on pinning the NHL to the wall each and every week if they're stupid enough to try to pass off wanna-bes as the real deal.

But ultimately, it won't matter what we in the press or in the blogosphere have to say. It'll be up to the fans to make the final judgement.

The majority of polled fans, especially in Canada, claim they'll support a replacement NHL, but it's one thing to say it, and another to do it.

A lot of that has to do with anger toward the lockout in general and the players in particular, whom the league has done a fantastic job of casting as the bad guys in this little drama.

But if all thirty clubs fail to reduce the price for attending an NHL game in correlation with the talent level of those replacements, that fan loyalty will be seriously tested.

If the powers that be can convince us that hockey in Canada is doomed, they can convince us it has been rescued. Once this labour dispute is behind us the chocolate ration is going up. The hockey media has no memory and so everything will be better when hockey returns. The game will be fixed with press releases.

From the league's media sycophants, yes. But again, I thinkmost hockey fans are smart enough to see through that nonsense. After all, ratings for NHL hockey in the US dropped over the past ten years as did attendence figures for several US-based teams. American fans voted with their feet over the quality of the NHL product over the past ten years.

Canadian fans have been more faithful to the overall NHL product, but they've complained for years about the poor quality of the game.

We're a hockey-mad nation, but I've read several Globe and Mail articles (sorry,no link, they're only available by subscription) and other Canadian papers indicating ratings for broadcasts of AHL, Junior A, and European games are nowhere near what they would be for NHL telecasts, while those for the IMG tour of NHL players in Europe on TSN were considered a joke.

That suggests Canadian fans are passionate about the NHL product so long as it has NHL players.

I could be proven wrong, but I don't believe Canadian hockey fans are going to buy second rate talent pretending to be NHLers. And I don't believe hockey fans in both countries will pay high prices to watch it live.

As for the quality of the product when the labour dispute is over, yes, the league and it's media buddies will play up the changes like crazy.

Some fans will buy into it. Most, however, will reserve judgement until they've seen for themselves if the changes bring about improvements.

After all, most of us have been a pretty good judge of the product over the past ten years, if ratings and attendance figures are anything to go by, as well as the steady stream of complaints on internet message boards, chat rooms and media call-in shows can testify.

We'll swallow it, fanatically and passionately.

We'll find out soon enough.

- Saw the latest from MSG Network's Stan Fischler:

Word we get is that the option favored by most NHL clubs is to go with non-NHLPA Replacement Players. That would include collegians, Junior grads who become free agents, ECHL, UHL, CHL and European players. There’ll be no pretense. That means it’ll be the Replacement National Hockey League with prices cut as much as 60 percent.

I've been saying for the past several days that it's not going to be easy for the league to sign those collegians and Junior Grads as free agents if they're represented by NHLPA-certified agents.

And according to this blurb from the Philadelphia Daily News, the NHL may not allow the top collegians and Junior grads to become free agents:

Under the old collective bargaining agreement, any players drafted in 2003 and not signed by this June's draft would have been returned to the draft.

But just before locking out the players, the NHL told the owners the rights to these players would be frozen and would remain property of the clubs that drafted them until the lockout ended.

The situation is less clear with undrafted players who are eligible this year, such as the new "Next One," Sidney Crosby. There is speculation that if there is no draft, they would be free agents.

NHL executive vice president Bill Daly quelched the speculation.

"Clubs will retain the rights to all players as to who had rights at the time of the lockout," Daly said. "As it relates to NHL clubs, their rights to players are totally as defined by the collective bargaining process. No club is in danger of losing rights to a player due to the passage of time. The same is true with players eligible for the draft this year."

That means the pool of talent to draw from would come from the ECHL, UHL, and any juniors, collegians or Europeans not considered to be prospects.

If the league goes that route, the teams had better slash their prices by 60%, because that's the only way they'll entice fans to watch that mish-mosh of "talent".

Here's an easy question: would you pay NHL prices to watch minor league talent? Remember, the average ticket price for an NHL game was $45.00, and the average cost for a family of four was over $200.00.

Now, here's another easy question: how many of you would pay $20.00 to watch minor league talent dressed up as NHL'ers? That's also assuming the costs for concessions and parking might also be reduced by 60 percent, meaning it might cost around $100.00 for a family of four to watch the "RNHL".

Got news for ya, it's still cheaper for me to take my family to watch our local QMJHL franchise, the PEI Rocket, than it would to watch the RNHL. The level of talent would be roughly the same, but it would cost me less than $50.00 Canadian for my family of three to watch the Rocket than it would to watch an RNHL game.

Food for thought.

MARCH 23: RANDOM THOUGHTS.

- Even though the NFL is considered the most successful of the "big four" major sports leagues in North America, it too isn't immune to contentious labour negotiations.

The major difference between the NFL and the NHL, however, is the former isn't waiting until almost the last minute before engaging in serious talks with it's players union as did the latter.

The current NFL CBA doesn't expire until 2008, but both the league and the NFLPA aren't wasting any time getting talks going, and in fact, have been negotiating for some time now.

Just think, if the NHL owners and players had started serious negotiations, say, four years before the expiration of the last CBA, they may not be in this mess.

Oh, I know, critics of the players will say they were never interested in starting serious talks, which was true, but they were holding discussions with the league as far back as January 2003.

And it does take two to tango. As much as the league whined about the players unwillingness to start negotiations sooner, they waited over thirteen months from the time the players made their first offer in June, 2003 before making a counter-offer.

Whatever comes out of the next NHL CBA, both sides should learn from the NFL's example, and not wait until the last minute before sitting down and negotiating.

- Excellent article in yesterday's Toronto Star by Damien Cox regarding what Team Canada could look like this spring at the World Championships in Innsbruck, Austria.

Forget about reuniting last September's World Cup of Hockey squad, for as Cox makes clear:

Putting a bunch of rusty, disgruntled millionaires out there who haven't played for months is a recipe for disaster.

It certainly is. Better to go with those who've been playing in Europe or the minors this season than those who've seen little if any hockey action since the World Cup.

Of those World Cup players who've been active this season, Cox suggests "You can build around six players who have been active in goalie Jose Theodore and forwards Vincent Lecavalier, Brad Richards, Martin St. Louis, Joe Thornton and Dany Heatley."

Not a bad nucleus to build around, if you ask me. They've all had international experience and success, and Lecavalier, Richards and St. Louis have Stanley Cup championship experience to boot.

Cox notes that Jay Bouwmeester has played this season with the Chicago Wolves of the AHL, but hasn't played well and may not be available if the Wolves have a lengthy playoff run.

If Bouwmeester is available, however, I'd snap him up. I think he's struggling with motivation after having played a couple of years in the NHL and having to return to AHL action during the lockout. Putting him on Team Canada would be terrific incentive.

I'd also look at including Jason Spezza, who's had a very strong AHL campaign.

Others who would make good selections are sniper Rick Nash and speedy forward Daniel Briere, the latter having played for Team Canada at last year's Worlds.

Other additions from last year's successful Worlds team who've been playing throughout this season include Brendan Morrison, Shawn Horcoff, J.P. Dumont, Steve Staios, JS Giguere, Patrice Bergeron, and Nick Schultz.

There are good players available for Team Canada 2005, it's just a matter of Steve Tambellini and Ken Holland finding them.

- As this column by CP's Bill Beacon on former NHL tough guy's Dave Morrissette's use of steroids and stimulants indicates, it's been a dirty little secret in pro hockey for some time, one that's going to have to be addressed by the NHL if they want to avoid the same kind of nightmarish press coverage MLB and the NFL have received over the years regarding steroid abuse.

Perhaps I'm naive in suggesting steroid abuse may not be as rampant in hockey as it's been in baseball and football. Still, the NHL and NHLPA will only be doing a great disservice to themselves, the game and the fans if they don't...and yes, that means as bad as the disservice they've done with this messy lockout.

UPDATE: According to Bob McKenzie, the NHL already has a strict drug testing policy in place, which will carry over into the next CBA. If it's as good as McKenzie suggests, then that's one thing the NHL has over MLB and the NFL.

MARCH 22: NEWS AND NOTES.

- Calgary Sun sports pundit Randy Sportak believes locked-out NHL players who decide to skip the upcoming World Hockey Championships are "hurting hockey".

Uhhh, Randy, the inability of both sides to settle this current labour dispute, which cost one NHL season and threatens another, is what's "hurting hockey".

A few players opting to pass on the worlds is minimal damage at best.

Besides, it's the NHL product that's hurting. Rest assured, the game is doing quite well everywhere else.

- Speaking of Calgary, whenever the NHL returns to action with NHL players, the Flames will have perhaps the best young blueline corps in the league.

They've already got Jordan Leopold and Robyn Regehr, who tapped into their full potential last season. They also have Andrew Ference and Steve Montador, who both had strong performances in last year's playoffs.

Their oldest blueliners are Toni Lydman and Rhett Warrener, who'll turn 28 and 29 respectively this year, and would be welcome additions to any defence corps.

Throw in CHL and World Junior MVP Dion Phaneuf, who should easily make the Flames roster once the lockout is resolved, and the Flames will be set for years on defence.

Once Phaneuf steps in, the Flames will probably be forced to move someone.

Barring contract hassles, Leopold and Regehr aren't going anywhere. GM Daryl Sutter traded for Warrener, a Western Canadian thrilled to be playing in Calgary. He'll likely stay. Lydman was bothered by injury but is considered a poor man's Teppo Numminen.

That might leave Ference or Montador as the expendable crew members.

Whaddya think, Flames fans? Write in with your opinion and I'll post it in my "Fans Speak Out" section.

- Over at Hockey Trade Rumors, they're debating which players they'd put in the Hockey Hall of Fame.

Several readers have nominated many worthy candidates. Steve Yzerman, Doug Gilmour, Cam Neely, Ron Francis, Joe Nieuwendyk, Adam Oates, Mike Richter, Slava Fetisov, Igor Larionov, and Al MacInnis are among the names being kicked around as worthy of inclusion.

There are several players from the 1970s and early 80s that, for whatever reason, aren't in the HHOF for whatever reason. If I had my choice, I'd rectify that.

Doug Jarvis, Rick Middleton, Butch Goring, Carl Brewer, Alexander Yakushev and Valeri Kharlamov have all been stupidly excluded from the Hockey Hall of Fame, for reasons I explain here (you'll have to scroll down to where it says, "Hall of Fame Brouhaha").

Those modern-day players who are either retired or about to will get into the Hall within a few years. The guys I've mentioned have been waiting decades, except for Brewer and Kharlamov who've passed on, but I'm sure the families of the latter would like to see them honoured.

- MSG Network's Stan Fischler believes ESPN was bluffing when they threatened not to pick up the option year in their contract with the NHL.

ESPN will return next season, but the future of any continued affiliation between the network and the NHL is in real jeopardy.

As noted here and in my Foxsports columns, as well as by other pundits, replacement programming scheduled by the network during the NHL lockout actually scored higher ratings in the NHL's timeslots than games from last season.

Those replacement sports include poker, bowling, cheerleading and so-called "extreme sports".

Television is driven by ratings, and if the NHL's return next season fails to generate higher ratings than those of the replacement programming, it may not have a future with ESPN.

That's not bluff, that's fact.

MARCH 21: DID GRETZKY HAVE IT EASY DURING HIS EARLY NHL YEARS?

Browsing though cyberspace looking for the latest hockey news yesterday, of which there was very little, I came across this article in the Detroit News regarding Sidney Crosby.

The columnists, Vartan Kupelian and Mike O'Hara, were stressing the importance of the NHL ending their labour dispute with the NHLPA in order for the draft to go off and the highly touted Crosby to be selected.

They point out how talented the kid is and how he may be the centerpiece around which the league will need to rebuild its image.

What caught my attention, however, was the following:

Crosby is the centerpiece. He is every bit as good as advertised. Talent oozes from every pore. But don't expect him to challenge Gretzky's historic records.

It's no fault of Crosby. It's the system.

Crosby will go to a team in the draft lottery and, therefore, a team with one of the weakest rosters in the NHL. There's the rub when it comes to Crosby's hopes of rewriting the record books.

When Gretzky arrived in the NHL in the 1979-80 season, he was already surrounded by the league's best lineup. The Edmonton Oilers had at least a half-dozen future Hall of Famers: Jari Kurri, Paul Coffey, Mark Messier, Grant Fuhr, Glenn Anderson and Kevin Lowe.

The Oilers were an offensive powerhouse and Gretzky, as great as he was, had more help than any superstar in league history. That's not a knock on Gretzky -- nobody admires him more than the two of us. It's just a fact.

In his first NHL season, Gretzky scored 51 goals and 137 assists. He had more than 200 points in four seasons. No matter how the NHL changes the rules to encourage offense, Crosby can't reach those numbers.

Crosby will be great. He just won't be The Greatest One.

First, let me say that I believe Crosby won't be Gretzky reincarnated like so many fans expect him to be, or want him to be. He'll be a great player, hopefully a franchise player who'll lead whichever team is lucky enough to land him to the promised land of championship glory one day. He might even break a few of the Great One's records.

But he won't be Gretzky.

And yes, Crosby will be behind the 8-ball in his first seasons in the NHL because he'll most likely be selected by a woeful club seeking to build around him.

But it's the way the game is played that is so different compared to when Gretzky came into the NHL.

In the Great One's early NHL years and into his prime, the game was far more free-flowing, devoid of uncalled obstruction, er, sorry, "defensive zone trap" hockey and goaltenders with overinflated equipment.

Even though the NHL promises (and we've heard those before) to make the game better whenever it returns to action with real NHL players and not third-rate replacements, which may be where they're heading this fall, Crosby will still find himself hooked, held, and interfered with in ways that wouldn't have been allowed in Gretzky's early NHL years.

But where Kupelian and O'Hara go off the rails is by suggesting Gretzky had a ready-made, superstar roster to perform with. That's simply not true.

In Gretzky's first NHL season, where he tied for the league scoring race with Marcel Dionne (with 137 points, not assists), only Messier and Lowe, future superstars, were regulars on the 79-80 Edmonton Oilers, and as you can see, Messier's stats that season were nowhere near the huge numbers he would one day post up. Lowe's numbers were good, but again, he too was a rookie, and more known for his defensive play than for offensive prowess.

Gretzky's linemates that season were such luminaries as Blair MacDonald and Stan Weir, and if you're asking yourselves who those guys are, then you're not an old-time Oilers fan.

That Oilers roster posted a 28-39-13 record, good for 69 points in 80 games, barely squeaking into the playoffs before being swept by the Philadelphia Flyers in three straight games.

The following season, the Oilers did marginally better (29-35-16, 74 points). Kurri, Coffey and Anderson had joined the roster then, and while their numbers were respectable for that time and the style of game played then, they weren't close to what they would later become, especially in the case of Coffey.

Messier's numbers had improved, but he still wasn't the force he was soon to become. The Great One, meanwhile, had broken Phil Esposito's single-season point record, all while the others were still developing.

It would only be in the playoffs that year, when they upset a heavily favoured, veteran Montreal Canadiens team before bowing to the eventual Stanley Cup champion NY Islanders that folks began to notice there may be more to the Oilers than just Gretzky.

It wasn't until 1981-82, Gretzky's third NHL season, when those kids began to step out of his shadow, which was also Fuhr's rookie season. Even so, the argument can be made that those youngsters still hadn't reach their full potential, which Gretzky would have his first 200 point season and set the single-season scoring record.

Only Anderson hit 105 points, with Coffey, Messier and Kurri finishing with over 80 points each.

Impressive yes, but one must remember it was a different style of game back then. Gretzky was still the prime scoring machine, the main cog that powered the Oilers offensive attack. If he'd missed any considerable time due to injury, his teammates would've felt his absence and their numbers would've suffered as a result.

That's not to suggest those players were passengers, but rather the beneficiaries of playing with such a one-of-a-kind player like Gretzky while they were still developing.

It wasn't until 1982-83 where one can truly see that the others were finally reaching their full potential as NHL stars and were starting to post the numbers that would put them into the Hockey Hall of Fame.

Of course, Gretzky was fortuitous to have teammates such as Messier, Coffey, Kurri and Anderson, but these guys were not in their prime during the Great One's early years.

It seems obvious to me that if it had taken those teammates two or three more seasons to hit their strides, Gretzky still would've been tearing up the league and setting scoring records.

Maybe, if the league does open up the game and Crosby is fortunate enough to play on a team that is well-built and coached as Gretzky's Oilers were in the 1980s, he may get that shot to break some of the Great One's records.

But there was only one Gretzky, and in his and the Oilers early NHL years, he accomplished great things whilst awaiting the development of his teammates. If anything, what he would accomplish between 1979-80 and 1981-82 was harder than the impressive numbers he would ring up throughout the remainder of years as an Oiler.

MARCH 20: COULD THE NHL USE "FREE AGENT" JUNIORS AS REPLACEMENT PLAYERS?

MSGNetwork's Stan Fischler claims he's learned that "that all
draft-eligible juniors - (Sidney) Crosby included - could be declared "free
agents" and be eligible to be signed as replacement players.

"The NHL could take players from the first, second and third rounds," a
league insider tells me, "and sign any of them. That's where Sid Crosby
could fit in."

Not if they're represented by NHLPA-certified agents, or at least, that was the claim from agents like JP Barry, Pat Brisson Ritch Winter and others following their meeting with NHLPA honcho Bob Goodenow a few weeks ago.

If they stick to their statements, and at this point there's no reason to
assume otherwise, they won't negotiate deals for their Juniors clients, as well as the US collegiate and European players they represent, to become replacement players.

Crosby is represented by Brisson and Barry, so given their position on the matter, don't expect to see the young Cole Harbour, NS phenom in an NHL uniform as a replacement this fall.

So unless those youngsters opt to dump their agents and sign up as
replacements, which could potentially be career suicide for the
lesser-talented, the NHL could find itself having a hard time them to sign
up.

But isn't it possible some agents might change their minds, given the fact
they too have been feeling the financial hit from this lockout, defy the PA and sign their young clients?

Yes, it is, but also unlikely. They don't want to risk the wrath of Goodenow, which could result in decertification, meaning they wouldn't be allowed to negotiate contracts for NHLPA members with NHL clubs.

Fischler was anticipating last fall that influential agents might rise up
against Goodenow if the lockout should cost the season, but while there are some undoubtedly unhappy over this situation, they're obviously not so unhappy as to stage a coup to oust him. The possibility of decertification looms over them if they fail.

And don't forget, their established NHLPA clientele would be furious at any agent who signed those prospects, or anyone else for that matter, to replacement player contract with the league. To them, it would be considered a betrayal.

Remember, the agents are also rivals, so it's unlikely any of them will want to risk losing established clients over replacement player contracts.

SO, HOW DID YOU SPEND YOUR SATURDAY?

In between playing my newly purchased PC game, "Brothers In Arms: Road to Hill 30" (Yes, I like first-player shooter games. Helps me unwind), I've been burning old VHS copies of classic NHL games to DVD.

Today, I enjoyed watching the 1984 Canada Cup matchup between Team Canada (which seemed to consist mainly of Edmonton Oilers, New York Islanders, and Larry Robinson) and the Soviet Union, Game Six of the 1974 Stanley Cup Finals between the Philadelphia Flyers and Boston Bruins (where Bobby Orr and Bobby Clarke bitch-slap each other in one memorable scrum), Game Six of the 1975 Stanley Cup Finals between the Flyers and Buffalo Sabres (where "Hound Dog" Kelly goes down in hockey history for scoring the series-winning goal), and perhaps the greatest hockey game ever played: the 1975 New Year's Eve tilt between the Montreal Canadiens and Central Red Army (where the story was Vladislav Tretiak keeping his overwhelmed, outplayed teammates in the game).

And to take the edge off, I watched an episode of Mystery Science Theater 3000 ( "The Rebel Set").

But what was so enjoyable was how free-flowing the action was in those classic games. Hockey the way it should be played, free of uncalled obstruction, over-inflated goaltending equipment, and shoving matches after every whistle.

It's the start of March break here on the Island, so this is pretty much the game plan for most of this upcoming week for yours truly, except for next weekend when my better half and I will be repainting our son's bedroom. Hey, it can't be all play and no work!

Don't worry, dear readers, I'll still be providing daily updates and my usual weekly column. It's just a slow day around here (for once!) so I decided to give you all a peek behind the curtain into the fabulously opulent lifestyle of a freelance writer on a week's leave from his day job.

MARCH 19: POINT/COUNTERPOINT.

Whilst doing my usual daily scanning of cyberspace for the latest hockey news and opinions, I happened across a following link on Boltsmag.com to a story published on a US conservative site called MichNews.com, which suggests hockey is dying because of its European and Canadian values.

John F. shot down the piece with an appropriate shot of sarcasm and one of these:

I, however, found that particular piece irksome, probably because of my annoyance at those who still suggest Europeans are too "soft" to play in the NHL, and being a proud Canadian, I tend to get defensive whenever somebody with limited knowledge of my country starts running it down.

Granted, I should just ignore the piece and move on, after all, why give publicity, even bad publicity, to someone who, while entitled to his opinion, appears in my opinion to be off his nut. I knew if I rebutted the article, I'd be giving this individual the attention he craved.

But then I thought, aw, what the hell, it'll make a nice change from speculating as to what's the next move in the current round of "negotiations" between the league and the players.

Besides, it's been a while since I've done a "Point/Counterpoint" segment.

I've cut out the comments which have nothing to do with the state of pro hockey, as they're a bitter rant against European and Canadian society and history, based solely on the decisions of Canada and many European nations not to support the United States war with Iraq.

So read on and enjoy! Original comments in italics and mine in bold.

The Death of Hockey
By Irwin N. Graulich
MichNews.com
Mar 16, 2005

Baseball is rolling in the dough. The Superbowl is the most watched event in the world. The NBA has become a money machine. And hockey is dying a slow death.

While unions, big business and greed certainly are playing a role in hockey's demise, the greater blame can be attributed to vast differences between American Judeo-Christian values and European ideals.

I guess baseball has apparently been untainted by the European scourge because they're too involved playing cricket. Oh, wait, that's the sport, or a version of it, from which baseball originated. Of course, we'll just ignore the steroid scandal currently rocking MLB, and the fact the sport has had its own share of contentious labor woes over the last thirty years.

The Superbowl is the most watched event in North America. The most watched event in the world is soccer's FIFA World Cup. For example, when it was held in the US, an estimated 33 billion fans worldwide watched the event over 27 days. That's over a billion fans per day. The 2002 World Cup match between South Korea and Japan reached 213 countries and set several records which you can find here.

Isn't the NFL's success predominantly due to revenue sharing? Why, yes it is! Hey, couldn't that be considered a form of socialism like they supposedly practice throughout Europe?

And don't look now, but European players have made considerable inroads in the NBA, yet it's a money machine according to Irwin. Maybe in his world, that's in spite of all those Europeans sneaking in and taking jobs away from good, hard working American boys, eh?

Secular Europe has become the antithesis of America, rejecting our battles, our strengths and our wisdom.

The nations of Europe have been around a lot longer than America and seen more wars on their soil over history than Americans ever have. Their empires preceeded the current American one, and they understand from their long history what happens to empires that over-stretch their reach and ambition. Rather than mocking and deriding Europeans, perhaps Irwin and his ilk might want to learn from their history so that America doesn't repeat the same mistakes.

Amoral Europe, the land that gave birth to communism, Marxism, fascism and Nazism, learned all the wrong lessons from The Holocaust and WWII.

Yes, all those things arose in Europe in the previous century, which as any good historian will tell you, was the direct result of the cataclysmic results of the First World War, which devastated a generation of European youth, led to the collapse of three empires and irreparably weakened another, and forever changed the course of European and World history.

As for learning "the wrong lessons from The Holocaust and WWII", I'm not going to get into all the reasons why I disagree with that since this is supposed to be about Irwin's take on hockey, and my responses would make this article stretch far longer than necessary. Let's just say I disagree with him and we'll move on.

And let's not get into all the nasty little things that have taken place in the United States (slavery, discrimination against blacks, anti-semitism, internment of Japanese-Americans, the reluctance to join the fighting in the Second World War against Nazism in Europe until attacked by Japan) and Canada (discrimination against blacks and Orientals, anti-semitism, internment of Japanese-Canadians, the shameful treatment of aboriginals, lingering tensions between English and French) over the past two hundred years.

Every nation and continent has their share of shameful skeletons rattling in their respective closets, some more than others, but ultimately no nation or continent has been totally pure throughout their respective histories.

Instead of realizing that fighting evil is a moral good, Europe has confused the issue by thinking that "fighting" is always wrong. Hence, their opposition to the invasion of Iraq.

Just because a person or a nation doesn't want to participate in an ally's war because they disagree over the reasons for the war doesn't make them amoral or wrong, nor should they be treated with contempt.

Irwin is forgetting that, after September 11th, those very European nations he mocks rushed to support America's war against terrorism, and continue to do so today in Afghanistan.

These ideas have played out in the once rough and tumble sport of North American hockey. Before 1985, there were vast differences between the way the sport was played here and abroad. The National Hockey League (NHL) was made up of teams that stressed size, aggressiveness, toughness, excitement and adrenaline. European hockey emphasized finesse, beauty, form and the "art" of skating.

I've followed this sport since 1970, and lemme tell ya, the NHL got schooled in the 70s', predominantly by the Russians, whose skills, skating and finesse were more than a match for the "rough-and-tumble" NHLers.

The Russians came within a period of defeating the NHL's best in the 1972 Summit Series, humbled the WHA's best in 1974, had a winning record against NHL squads during the Super Series '76 tour, and defeating the NHL's best in the 1979 Challenge Cup and the 1981 Canada Cup.

Those Soviets squads convinced NHL traditionalists that they had to incorporate the skills, speed and conditioning of the Russians and other emerging European hockey nations with the best aspects of the physical North American game.

The Montreal Canadiens of the late-70s were the first to accomplish this, thanks to shrewd management and coaching. Their sweep of the Flyers in the 1976 Stanley Cup finals was seen as the turning point by which the NHL product began to change.

The Habs style was emulated by the New York Islanders dynasty of the early 1980s, and the Edmonton Oilers that dominated the rest of that decade. By the early 1990s, the game had seemingly achieved near-perfect balance of finesse and physical play, which also coincided with the rise in popularity in the sport throughout North America.

Part of sports today is spectacle, as well as the battle between good guys and bad guys. There is a entertainment and fantasy element built into fan interest, explaining the tremendous popularity of professional wrestling.

Sports has always been about spectacle and the good guys against the bad guys. That's never changed in NHL history or any sports league history and never will.

As for pro wrestling, it is nowhere near as popular now as it was in the late 1980s and late 1990s. WWE honcho Vince McMahon's product always worked best whenever he was challenged by competition, which in turn forced him to improve his product.

Since taking over WCW several years ago, the WWE product has stagnated and doesn't play to the full houses in the huge arenas as it once did, nor do their two flagship television shows have the same ratings as they once did, nor the PPV buy rates for their big events.

Entertainment and fantasy sells, but what sustains it over the long haul is real drama.

Since hockey battles were real, they provided the only sports outlet besides boxing, for actual fights, a natural and healthy outlet for men's violent tendencies.

Which earned hockey such a sterling reputation amongst North American sports fans, especially in the United States. When your sport becomes the butt of a joke from the dearly-departed Rodney Dangerfield ("I went to a boxing match the other night and a hockey game broke out"), that's speaks volumes about how pro hockey is viewed in the all-important American sports market.

Besides, with bodychecking allowed in the sport of hockey, one would think a well-time, well-placed hit would be a "natural and healthy outlet" for those violent tendencies. I played the game for years, not professionally of course, and I was never that great of a physical player because I'm not that strong on my skates, but I can tell you that the few times I knocked an opponent on his ass with a check, it was immensely satisfying.

After the demise of the Soviet Union, many Russian and European hockey players began to infiltrate the NHL, searching for greater financial rewards.

And NHL owners, general managers, coaches and scouts were thrilled to have them, as were most hockey fans, especially if the European in question turned into a big star. And by the way, they didn't "infiltrate". Irwin makes it sound as though they were spies or something. They were scouted, drafted, brought into the development systems of those respective NHL teams, and learned the North American game.

As Canada opened itself up to European values, everything began to change. Canadians embraced a sports "affirmative action program," where pure skill totally trumped inner heart and desire, important "old" Canadian and American traits.

Yes, here in Soviet Kanuckistan, where I reside on my collective farm here on Prince Edward Island, I have embraced the affirmative action programs of my government because they know best and I, as proletarian worker, do not know as much as my leaders and therefore trust them blindly. In return, I get new wheels for tractor every five years and all the potatoes I can eat. What I don't eat, I use to build my house and barn. My computer is made of potatoes. I give everything else for the glory of the great Kanuckistan nation.

Jeebus, has this guy EVER followed Canadian hockey? Since he knows so little about my country, I'd hazard a guess and say no, he hasn't.

Yes, skill levels are preached more than they were in the past in minor hockey on through to the Junior leagues, but the one thing that has always given Canadian hockey fans pride in their players is their heart, toughness and desire. That has never changed and never will.

Toughness, hard hitting and fighting were removed from the sport under the auspices of political correctness.

WRONG! Never happened, never will. If Irwin ever cares to leave the confines of the United States and actually travel throughout Canada watching how the game is played at various levels, he'd quickly realize how mistaken his opinion is.

Again, there is more emphasis on skills at the development leagues than there were years ago, but the emphasis is still there on toughness and hitting.

Geez, one of the running debates in Canadian minor hockey in recent years was whether or not kids under twelve should be allowed to bodycheck. A large segment of hockey fans, parents, and those who run minor hockey programs, feel they should be allowed. Even the Great One, Wayne Gretzky, who was never known for his physical play, believes it should be allowed as it prepares those kids for what they'll face as they grow older and move up in the ranks. And fighting still occurs once the kids get into the Junior leagues.

After all, if Europe preferred a ballet on ice with hockey sticks, then the average hockey fan everywhere should want to join the sophisticated crowd.

Does this describe any North American hockey fan? Certainly not the ones I know. It certainly doesn't describe me. We hockey fans appreciate and admire toughness, but we also admire skill. If the average NHL game was nothing but a brawl-fest, we'd grow quickly tired of it. We want a good balance of skill and physical play. Like anything, if it tilts too much in one direction or the other, the game suffers.

So went the thinking of the Stanley Cup hierarchy.

"The Stanley Cup hierarchy"? Who the hell are those people? Anyone who knows of this mysterious entity and who comprises it, please let me know, as obviously Irwin is the only person aware of it.

Unfortunately, the entire Canadian political system has embraced similar ideas and is the reason why there is such a great problem with growing Islamic fundamentalism, similar to Europe.

I'll leave it to the experts in Canadian politics and Islamic fundamentalism to point out the obvious flaws in Irwin's statements. Let's just stick to his hockey-related rant.

Unfortunately, the NHL in the United States is ruled through Montreal, and thus has become a European outpost.

Uhhh, Irwin, NHL headquarters hasn't been in Montreal for quite some time. They're now located in New York City. And if you ever want your jaw broken, walk into any brasseriere in Montreal or Quebec and accuse them of being a European outpost.

Hockey, a wonderful Canadian invention had turned too American, with players becoming American cowboys rather than "international" figure skaters. The pseudo sophisticates to our North wished to move beyond sports as an entertainment vehicle, setting up new rules and regulations that do not allow the tremendous passion and drive of the less graceful to succeed.

Those rules are set up by the good folks at NHL headquarters, the one in New York, not the mythical Irwin claims is in Montreal. Those rule changes are usually made by meetings with the general managers of each club. All of the general managers have been long-time hockey men, and many of them are former players who made their names and reputations during that magical period before 1985 that you noted earlier in your piece.

There isn't a hockey fan alive who'd consider Bob Clarke, Daryl Sutter, Kevin Lowe, Doug Risebrough, Bob Gainey, Glen Sather, and Doug Wilson as "pseudo-sophisticates" who want to rip the passion and drive out of the game.

The fight against hockey violence was actually a battle against America. If a hockey player fights back to protect himself, he was considered too aggressive, just like Israel. Evidence the European and Canadian positions vis a vis the Middle East.

Bwaaahhhh-hahahahahahahahahahahahahahahaha!!! I'm sorry, gotta wipe the tears from my eyes, I was laughing so hard at this outrageous statement.

Yes, that's right, hockey fans, ol' Irwin's got it figured out. Or rather, he would have, if NHL headquarters were still in Montreal, and many general managers weren't what Don Cherry would refer to as "good Canadian boys", the type who made their names playing a tough physical game, and if it weren't so obvious that he couldn't recognize a hockey game if it were played in his front yard.

The current problems in the NHL have NOTHING to do with a "battle against America" as seen through Irwin's paranoid, xenophobic vision.

As Canada continues to exercise a misguided foreign policy, its political ideals have transcended down into society, bringing with it the downfall of a once great sport.

There are many contributing factors to the downfall of the NHL product None of them had to do with Canadian or European politics or foreign policy.

Its anti-war, anti-fighting ideal presents a wonderful entrepreneurial opportunity for a new American style league to arise. Future Steinbrenners, take note.

A "new American style league"? Here's betting it won't be much different from any other North American hockey league. As for future Steinbrenners, they seem less interested in starting up new hockey leagues and more interested in making money within the already established sports leagues, and that includes the NHL.

The Players Association and the owners have begun to think like Neville Chamberlain, that negotiation and bringing pacifism into the sport will ultimately create success.

You know, I never thought I'd see Neville Chamberlain and the NHL linked in any way, but Irwin has done it, by gum, even if it's to make a big stretch to support a weak opinion that the NHL is being destroyed by Canadian and European values.

However, it is simply the rejection of America and embracing European ideals which have become key factors in hockey's demise.

And here, all this time, I thought it was ten years of uncalled obstruction masqarading as defensive hockey sucking the life out of the game, overlarge goaltending equipment, too many franchises in non-hockey markets and other factors contributing to hockey's demise. Silly me.

Unless hockey Commissioner Bettman goes back to the good old days of "The Broad Street Bullies," the sport will continue to deteriorate, along with most other European ideologies and beliefs.

If Bettman ever went back to the "good old days" of the Broad Street Bullies, the sport will deteriorate. That is widely considered by knowledgeable hockey authorities and fans as one of the low points in the modern history of the game.

Irwin N. Graulich is a well known motivational speaker on morality, ethics, religion and politics.

But knows bugger-all about hockey and the NHL.

He is also President and CEO of a leading marketing, branding and communications company in New York City.

Perhaps he should stick with what he knows and leave the hockey talk to those who actually, you know, follow the sport, even on a casual basis.

MARCH 18: LEAGUE'S LATEST PROPOSALS AND OTHER NEWS.

- As we all know, the league made their latest pitch to the NHLPA yesterday, and they're not surprising. One was a de-linked offer at $37.5 million, the other a linked offer at 54% of league revenues, whatever they may be.

Give it up to MSG Network's Stan Fischler, for this offer was as he predicted it would be, or rather, as it was leaked to him from his league sources, except for the number values.

The NHLPA has, according to NHL VP Bill Daly, "deferred responding to our new proposal, pending internal discussions it intends to conduct over the next week."

If you want an idea what that response will be, refer to the NHLPA's press release following the meeting:

""Last week, Gary (Bettman) asked me how to resume discussions for a new CBA. I told Gary to bring forward any proposal that he believed would be of interest to the players. Today, Gary gave us two salary cap proposals. Both proposals were very similar to ones that we previously rejected several times. We will be determining our next steps and responding at the appropriate time."

I can well imagine what the response will be.

I'm guessing we'll see the PA meeting with the league within the next seven-ten days, at which time the PA will likely rejected both proposals and offer up one or more counter-proposals.

It will be surprising if the PA totally rejects the "no-linkage" cap option, since they were willing to accept that option in those frantic final hours prior to the cancellation of the 2004-05 season. The sticking point, of course, was what the cap number would be.

It'll be interesting to find out what the full details were of the league $37.5 million offer. If they're taking entry level bonuses, salary arbitration and revenue sharing off the table, I doubt very much the PA will accept that.

So the question now is, what move will the PA make?

We can speculate on this for days, and we'll likely hear plenty of "insider" speculation and leaks, as well as leaks as to what the NHL's offer was, courtesy of the NY Post's Larry Brooks and the Toronto Sun's Al Strachan.

One thing is certain: the PA isn't going to accept the league's latest offer. And it's a safe bet the league won't accept the PA's counter-offer(s).

And the wheels on the bus go round and round, probably heading in the direction of impasse.

- Former Edmonton Oilers netminder and hero of the 1994 Swedish Olympic champions Tommy Salo retired yesterday, citing lack of motivation and ailing hips.

I think he hasn't been the same ever since Belarus scored a flukey goal off his head to eliminate Sweden in the 2002 Winter Olympics. I'm not the only one to pick up on that.

That goal rattled him, even though it was a pure fluke that could've happened to anybody.

Too bad, he was once considered among the most promising netminders in the NHL.

-There's a persistent rumour flying about that Bain and Game Plan LLC, who attempted to purchase the NHL lock, stock and barrel a few weeks ago for $3.5 billion, might attempt, with the blessing of the NHL's big market owners, to purchase several struggling small market franchises.

Only problem is, the NHL's constitution forbids a single person, business or organization from owning more than one team. The reason for this dates back to the days when James Norris, in addition to being the principal owner of the Detroit Red Wings, was also part-owner of the Chicago Blackhawks and New York Rangers.

It's to prevent conflict of interest, as the Blackhawks and Rangers were at one time considered the dumping grounds for Red Wing players who had run afoul of Norris and his cantankerous general manager, "Jolly" Jack Adams.

So unless Bain and Game Plan buys the entire league, I cannot see them being allowed by NHL rules to own several franchises.

- Forget about a rival league formed by NHLPA members in North America if the NHL succeeds in hiring replacement players.

Yeah, it's fun to talk about, but in reality this won't get off the ground because the logistics of doing so are too complex to arrange in such a short period of time.

First, franchises have to be established, and that needs people or businesses willing to own teams. Next, you need to have adequate arenas, and in most of the major cities in North America, most of those arenas are owned by NHL teams, who aren't about to allow any rival franchise to perform there…unless they're willing to pay through the nose for the privilege.

There's also sponsorship to be arranged, broadcast deals to be worked out, and most importantly, season tickets to be sold. A rival league will desperately need those revenues if they're to have any hope of survival, even against a replacement-stocked NHL.

Finally, there would have to be a significant majority of NHLPA members willing to perform to make this work and to attract the kind of gate such a rival league would need.

Sorry, but I don't see any of those things happening, not when half of the PA membership spent this past season in Europe or riding the buses in the minors.

It's nothing more than a fantasy.