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MARCH 2005 SOAPBOX ARCHIVES

MARCH 1-17 2005

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MARCH 17: MORE MOVEMENT ON THE CHESS BOARD.

According to Sportsnet, NHL commissioner Gary Bettman has invited the team owners to a Board of Governors meeting, set for April 20th.

Bettman also apparently sent out a memo to the owners suggesting the "window of opportunity" for negotiations was rapidly closing, "perhaps within the next two weeks".

"This latest corespondence comes on the eve of the lockouts next bargaining session -- a process deemed by one NHL executive as "merely a step towards impasse."

The NHL believes the Players' Association is not interested in negotiating and therefore exists a strong sense Bettman will outline how a plan to employ replacement players can be implemented through impasse at the April 20th meeting."

Meanwhile, a recent report in the Philadelphia Inquirer has WHA wanna-be commissioners/bosses/overlords Ricky Smith and Mark McKelvie attempting to get their fledgling league off the ground by staging "the Bobby Hull Invitational tournament May 20-June 2, which will be held on the East and West Coasts of Canada with six teams."

And how will they do that? By asking Jeremy Roenick to go around recruiting locked-out NHL'ers to participate.

"Roenick has recruited teammates Robert Esche, Tony Amonte, Keith Primeau and Sean Burke, and former Flyer Mark Recchi. Others include Chris Chelios, Mike Keane and Andrew Raycroft."

According to the WHA's official website, there are many more, ranging from marquee names to fringe players willing to sign up.

The enticement? $20,000 a head to play and a $2 million winner-take-all prize pool.

Roenick claims he's not doing this to get the rival league off the ground but rather "to put some money into guys' pockets".

Of course, this comes with the blessing of the NHLPA.

Is it me or is this just more of the usual cage-rattling being done on both sides?

First, Bettman's memos. If he's approaching this as just a formality toward declaring an impasse, he'd better have all his legal ducks in a row before doing so.

Of course he will. Bettman has obvious shortcomings, but stupidity isn't one of them.

But let's face it, if he's only going for a two-week window here for negotiations, based on an assumption the PA isn't willing to negotiate, that's a shaky premise for declaring impasse.

It's believed NHLPA honcho Bob Goodenow told Bettman during their meeting last week that the players expect the league to make the next offer, that they're tired of making concessions and aren't about to give any further unless the league makes an offer they can accept.

That could well be the impetus for Bettman's apparent belief the timeline for negotiation is a short one.

But if he's going to go the impasse route, he'll be forced to defend himself from accusations from the PA before the National Labor Relations Board of failing to negotiate in good faith.

If the PA continues to show willingness to bargain, Bettman's case will have to be airtight to prove only a two-week window exists. Especially when it's well known the league prefers a negotiated settlement by May in order to give it time to market itself for a return to action this fall and to rebuild rosters.

Impasse, however, is not going to be an easy road, and while I don't doubt Bettman's resolve should he take this route, I think he's aware that it's not going to be a slam-dunk, even with the NLRB currently ruled by pro-business conservatives.

What could throw a monkey-wrench into the works is the fact both sides moved off their respective sticking points prior to the cancellation of the season.

The league agreed to remove linking salaries to revenues from their demands, and in return, the NHLPA agreed to accept a salary cap. From there, it was simply a case of agreeing on numbers.

And that's what the NLRB might decide should any declared impasse by the league be challenged by the NHLPA filing a complaint that the league negotiated in bad faith.

Bettman will likely be counting on avoiding an injunction from the NLRB preventing the owners from hiring replacement players, which would mean that they could bring in replacements while the NLRB conducts a hearing, which could result in four to five months passing before a ruling came down.

Perhaps Bettman and the owners know something the rest of us don't. Perhaps he's received some form of assurances that the NLRB won't hit him with an injunction if he's truly hell-bent on an impasse.

Then again, maybe he's gambling that this will go his way.

This could be just another pressure tactic from the Commissioner's office, a leaking of memos and hints of impasse to stymie the limited period of leverage the NHLPA presently has between now and May.

As for the latest attempt to resurrect the WHA, let's just say that's the desperation of those involved in that league willing to try any tactic to get themselves off the ground.

But it also makes the WHA useful idiots for the NHLPA. There's been talk, albeit half-hearted, about a rival league springing up involving NHLPA players should the lockout drag on into next season or the NHL returns with replacements.

What better way to try to throw a scare into the owners than the sight of top NHL talent committing themselves to a couple of weeks of a North American tournament.

OK, it wouldn't be much of a scare, more like rubbing salt in an open wound, but it would at least serve a purpose by sending a message to the NHL owners: "Start next season without us, and we just might start a rival league to compete against you".

Sure, it's pure folly, no upstart league in any major North American sport has survived going head-to-head against long-established rivals in modern memory, but for the short term, it could work for the NHLPA, especially if it could cut away a significant portion of the NHL's fan base.

Call it simply more manoeuvers on the chess board as both sides jockey for position in this next round of talks.

MARCH 16: HOW MUCH LEVERAGE DO THE PLAYERS REALLY HAVE?

One of my readers recently questioned my contention of the players currently having leverage over the owners from now until May in this current chapter of the NHL lockout.

I responded to his comments via e-mail, which I'll now share with the rest of you.

"The NHLPA has leverage right now because the league, by its own admission, wants to get a deal in place before the end of May. More on that in a moment.

First, if anything the cancellation of the season took the pressure off the players. By mid-February they'd lost three-quarters of their salaries for the 04-05 season and had little left to lose by that point. If a season-saving deal had been made, they would've been playing for very little in terms of salary.

You're absolutely correct in your statement that projected revenues for next season are guaranteed to be down for next season at this point, and will drop further if the opening months of next season are also lost to the lockout.

The problem, of course, is that those revenues are based primarily upon commercial sponsors, broadcasting deals and above all, ticket sale, particularly season tickets.

As a recent article in the New York Post pointed out, in the next two months the 30 NHL teams will start canvassing their season ticket holders looking for renewals and hoping to attract new ones.

Unfortunately, if there's no resolution to the lockout and the league attempts to return with replacement players, that's going to be a very tough sell for those clubs. For all the talk of fans willing to support NHL teams with replacement rosters, what I've found in my research is they'll do this only if those teams reduce those prices to match the calibre of talent that'll be iced.

In other words, most fans probably won't be willing to shell out major league prices for minor league talent. And since it's season tickets that constitute the majority of the gate, and the gate is where the NHL predominantly makes their money, this could translate into leverage for the players if the league starts up in the fall with replacements.

As for the short term, between now and the end of May, the league wants to get a negotiated deal in place to not only bolster those season-ticket sales, but also to generate interest in the league again by having the off-season go off as per normal.

A negotiated deal would allow the June entry draft to occur on time, and of course this years' is extra special because wunderkid Sidney Crosby is perhaps the most highly-touted pick since Eric Lindros back in 1991.

This would allow time as well for teams to re-stock their rosters, by re-signing their RFA players, by making trades and of course, via the summer UFA market. With so many teams now having so many gaps to fill, it could make for one of the busiest summers in league history. All of this, of course, will help to stoke the passions of hard-core fans, which of course will help bolster those season-ticket sales.

Sponsors remain a big deal for the league as well. While none have yet stated they'll be withdrawing support, there have been rumours of at least two major sponsors (one rumoured to be Mastercard but that hasn't been confirmed) reconsidering their affiliation with the NHL. Bettman and company must assure those sponsors the league is indeed returning to action.

The broadcasting deal with ESPN was seen in jeopardy last month when the network openly suggested it might not pick up the option year in its contract with the NHL. ESPN has since reconsidered, most likely because of the league's claim it'll return to action this fall. As for local broadcasting deals, each team will likely have to ensure the local broadcasters that there will be hockey next season.

Essentially, there will be ruffled feathers to be smoothed on the sponsor and broadcasting side of the house.

As for leverage where replacements are concerned, that'll only work if the league doesn't get slapped with an injunction from the NLRB while it considers the complaint surely to be filed by the NHLPA which will accuse the league of negotiating in bad faith.

Even if it does succeed in icing replacements, the league could lose all leverage if the fans don't come out in large enough numbers to support that product. Most NHL teams are non-committal about reducing ticket prices, which may be the only way to get fans to regularly support the league in that scenario.

If the fans do turn out for replacements, the NHLPA loses. If they don't, the NHL loses. Either way, by mid-November, we'll know for certain.

Thus, as you can see, the players do have leverage from now until May. After that, it'll be dependent on season-ticket sales, the NLRB if the NHL declares an impasse, and on fan support if the league does return with replacements. "

Tom Benjamin has more on the subject, which was in response to a recent Soapbox article.

MARCH 15: MORE LOCKOUT TIDBITS.

- I still see in the press that some hockey commentators consider those NHL players who went to Europe or the minor leagues to play during this lockout as "scabs".

Y'know, I didn't get a journalism degree like those reporters did, but I do know what a "scab" is in labour terms.

As I've noted before on this site and in my Foxsports columns, the dictionary (pick one, any one, they'll all say the same thing) defines a scab (go past the part about bloody lesions) as one of the following:

A worker who refuses membership in a labor union.
An employee who works while others are on strike; a strikebreaker.
A person hired to replace a striking worker.

None of those descriptions apply to the NHL players.

They've crossed no picket line, they weren't hired to replace striking workers, nor have they refused membership in a union.

They were hired by other teams in Europe and the minors because there were jobs available to them. And why were those jobs available? Because the owners of those respective teams saw a chance to make a buck at the expense of the NHL lockout.

I love all this uproar over the evil NHL players taking away jobs from Europeans and minor leaguers. My question is, where was this concern before the NHL lockout?

Not so much in the North American minors, but it's been common practice for a decade now for washed-up NHLers (and AHLers and other minor leaguers) to seek employment in Europe.

Yet nobody was upset over those players taking away jobs from Europeans. Probably because it wasn't newsworthy at the time. And in the mindset of some North American hockey fans and more than a few hockey commentators, they're only Europeans.

But the NHL locks out its players, and now those NHLPA members are considered "scabs" and "hypocrites"?

Oh yes, that latter word. Like scab, "hypocrite" is frequently tossed about by lazy pro-owner media sycophants to describe those NHL players who won't accept a salary cap system in the NHL but are willing to play in the minors where a salary cap exists.

Let's look at the ol' dictionary again, shall we?

Hypocrite: a person who professes beliefs and opinions that he does not hold .

Like the tag of scab, hypocrite doesn't apply to those NHL'ers playing in the minors under a salary cap system.

The reason is that those players aren't doing it for the money, they're doing it to stay in shape and keep themselves busy following the one familiar return they've known for all these years, that of a hockey schedule.

It would be a different story if those players were signing up because they needed the cash. That's simply not the case here.

Try to find one example where an NHLPA member signed with a league that had a salary cap because he needed the money. Good luck!

"But Spector, they're still taking away jobs from lesser players who rely on those leagues to earn a living."

No argument there, but I've yet to see any fans or media commentators tossing around those epithets looking at the real reason why this situation has occurred.

And where was this concern when former NHLers, either past their prime or not good enough to stick with the big league, went off and took away jobs in Europe and the minors?

The only reason certain reporters bang this story like a gong is because it sells, it plays upon the emotions of angry hockey fans. Welcome to tabloid journalism, stories without substance, provided only to whip readers into a frenzy whilst devoid of facts.

The NHLPA players didn't barge into the offices of the respective owners of those European and North American minor league franchises, brandishing their sticks like clubs and demanding work.

No, no, those players were willingly signed up by the owners of those franchises, who did what comes naturally in the business world: make a buck at the expense of the competition.

How often will those teams get a chance to ice rosters with real, honest-to-goodness, gen-u-ine NHL stars still in their prime?

Don't think for a minute, when the agents for those players approached those respective owners, that the sound of ringing cash registers weren't going off in the heads of said owners.

Yes, it was for far less money than most of those players were used to earning, but again, it was the chance to play hockey and stick to a familiar routine that drew them to Europe and the minors, not how much or how little was going into their bank accounts.

Look, I know the NHL players haven't been little angels in this dispute, and Buddha knows they've made mistakes along the way prior to this lockout and during. I've taken them to task both here and in my Foxsports columns and will continue to do so.

If you wanna get mad at somebody for all those Europeans and minor leaguers losing jobs, put the blame where it belongs: on the NHL owners for imposing the lockout, and the owners of those other clubs for jettisoning loyalty to those former employees to make a buck at the expense of the NHL.

-Seems the Buffalo Sabres farm club, the Rochester Americans, are going to experiment playing on blue ice with bluelines painted orange.

It's all part of the bigger picture, part of an ongoing attempt by National Hockey League officials to breathe some new life and excitement into a league that - once it returns from its season-long lockout - will face a huge challenge in bringing back its fans.

"I think there's a feeling we want to modernize the game," Sabres managing partner Larry Quinn said. "I think there's definitely some fresh air in the league. I think people are open to innovation. I think there's a sense of a new era."

Specifically, they want to speed up the game, re-emphasize the players' skills and make the game more visually appealing to fans in the stands and on television.

Quinn also said he found his eyes hurt after watching the game because of the white-painted ice.

Perhaps what's hurting his eyes isn't the colour of the ice, but the quality of the game presented by the NHL over the past decade.

Let's see, black puck on white ice. What's hard to follow? I've been watching this game for 35 years, and I've had no problem following that little black puck bouncing along the white-painted ice.

Hey, I'm all for innovation, but if the NHL really, truly wants to improve the game, it needs to first and foremost crack down on uncalled obstruction masqarading as defensive hockey. Then reduce the size of goaltender equipment, and then eliminate the centre red line.

But of course, what we'll get is shootouts to settle tie games after three boring periods of trapping hockey and a five minute overtime, flashier uniforms, coloured ice and other cosmetic changes.

In other words, the NHL will react the way it always does in these cases: apply bandaids to a sucking chest wound.

Cynical? You bet. The quality of the game has deteriorated over the past ten years, but the NHL does next to nothing to address the core problems. I'm not getting my hopes up.

That way, I can be pleasantly surprised, rather than bitterly disappointed, if they actually bring in changes that work!

My thanks to "Paul" for sending me the Buffalo News article.

- Seems the credit ratings on the Staples Center in Los Angeles and the Pepsi Center in Denver was placed under "Ratings Watch Negative" by Fitch Ratings.

In a press release dated Feb. 11, Fitch determined that the complete cancellation of the 2004-2005 National Hockey League (NHL) season would undoubtedly weaken all rated sports arena debt associated with an NHL team.

But remember, teams will lose less money without playing an NHL season than if they'd played it.

Yeah, right. Don't let common sense stand in the way of your self-destruction, you morons!

- Hey, folks, there are some fans finding hockey happiness in other places during this lockout. Check out the following from "Blues Puckhead":

Hey Spector, this could not have been a better day. The River Otters won 5-2, all the Blues Players looked good, Ryan Johnson had an assist as well as Mayers and Salvador. Jackman would have had two but he got kicked out of the game for fighting. He didn't have his elbow pads tighting and took them off before the fight began, which is a game misconduct in the UHL.

What is more interesting was who was sitting behind me the entire game. The GM for the Blues Larry Pleau, and former Blue and current scout for the Blues Bob Plager. I talked with them throughout the game and asked them many questions about hockey including the lockout. The response I recieved from Pleau was refreshing. I told him about how we were season ticket holders of the Blues for 20 years now and he told us to hang in there, that he was sorry that this had to happen. I told him very bluntly that I felt that both sides were wrong in this and that I understand that the League needs cost certainty. That was something that he said he agreed with me 100 percent on both accounts.

But today was probably the greatest hockey day of my life ever, so far, until the Blues win the Stanley Cup, oh wait, the Blues will never win a Stanley Cup. HA-HA."

- Hey, big lockout news alert, folks! The NHL and NHLPA agreed..."on a time and place for their next bargaining session this week but didn't release any further details on when or where."

Hoorah! Let the joy bells ring! THEY ACTUALLY AGREED ON SOMETHING! It's a red letter day, yes sir, mark your calendars, you'll never see the likes of these days again.

Okay, okay, too much sarcasm, I know, but after months of this crap-fest, whaddya expect?

-Hey gang! Wanna buy a game-worn jersey? Check out this link as provided by regular contributor "Go Sharks!"

MARCH 14:LOCKOUT NEWS ROUNDUP.

- The Ottawa Sun reported yesterday that NHLPA honcho Bob Goodenow told NHL commissioner Gary Bettman that it's up to the league to come forward with a new offer because the players don't feel any pressure at this time to get a deal done.

Now I realise those of you who are pro-owner are going to lambast Goodenow for this, but really, this is all part of the chess match.

With the 2004-05 season lost and pressure upon the league from sponsors, season ticket holders and television networks to re-open on time next season, the leverage in these talks has shifted from the owners to the players.

That leverage, however, has a limited shelf life, to the end of May by my estimation. If no deal is in place by June 1, the league will either declare an impasse, or could avoid that lengthy process entirely and attempt to ice nothing but replacement players for next season.

If the league goes the impasse route, as noted in yesterday's Soapbox, it's a legal minefield for the league, where one misstep could be fatal. Even if the league were successful, the off-ice distractions of the legal fight would hang like a dark cloud over the start of the 2005-06 season.

There's also the concern that returning with replacement rosters could blow up in the owners' faces. Sure, they'll ice a product, but if the fans - especially those who buy season tickets - don't buy into it, the league will lose all leverage.

Thus, the owners and Bettman will be gambling the players resolve collapses and they cross the picket line in droves. It'll be an all or nothing bet that is no sure thing.

So for now, the PA is going to test the owners resolve by insisting they make the first move in this new chapter of the lockout. Goodenow and his executive want to see just how far the league is willing to go with this, given the losses the owners have felt on various levels thus far.

- TSN's Bob McKenzie wonders if the NHL hasn't made a tactical error in negotiations with the NHLPA by telling the PA on Friday's meeting there was a "limited window of opportunity" toward getting a deal in place before the start of next season.

McKenzie suggests that by threatening to return next season with replacement players, the NHL has set a time line that could decide how this lockout ends.

He feels that, by this coming November, we'll know how this situation will end, depending on the support the league receives for its replacement-stocked rosters.

McKenzie writes that what was worse for the NHLPA members was the uncertainty of not knowing when this lockout would end. Now, one way or the other, the players knows.

If the owners fall flat on their collective asses with replacements this fall, the NHLPA will be able to call the tune in negotiations. By that point, the owners will be so desperate for a resolution that, even if they get a hard salary cap from the players, it'll be one around $50 million US, which was what they were willing to accept under the last offer they made to the league prior to the cancellation of this season.

Or we could see the players push their luxury tax system, which by that time the league and the owners could be resigned to accepting, rather than continue swallowing more losses and humiliation.

However, if NHL fans turn out in huge numbers to support an NHL product with replacement players, that could stretch the players resolve to the breaking point. If that resolve collapses, the NHLPA would have no choice but to accept the league's cost certainty, which as Gary Bettman threatened wouldn't be any better than what the league tabled as it's final offer last February.

- The Globe and Mail reported this past Thursday that the Florida Panthers and Nashville Predators are amongst a list of teams "at great risk because of their financial condition."

As summarized by Sportsnet.ca, "Each team was given $10 million as a lockout fund but in some cases it may not be enough. Some teams are using deposits from season-ticket holders, suite holders, club-seat holders and sponsors as operating capital instead of dipping into lines of credit at their banks or the lockout fund each team has deposited with the league.

Should some of these creditors come demanding their money back, it could lead to serious trouble for a few teams. The Nashville Predators and Florida Panthers are two teams named that could be in serious financial troubles."

But remember, we were told that teams would actually lose less money if there wasn't a 2004-05 season than if it were played.

And Larry Brooks of the NY Post weighed in with his opinion that the NHL's days of reckoning may be just around the corner, when the teams send out their request for renewals to their season-ticket holders.

Get past the gag reflex that Brooks' name invariably provokes amongst knowledgeable hockey fans and acknowledge that he has a very good point here.

The players have lost a year's worth of salaries. A good number of them cannot afford to miss another year's worth.

The owners and the league, however, are facing their own serious losses, and the prolongation of this dispute into next season, even for the first two months, could have serious consequences for some teams.

The first response amongst pro-owner fans is the players need to realize that this situation will result in less money for the owners to pay them, thus it's in their best interest to get a deal done now.

And I agree, but only if the owners are willing to offer a deal that makes sense. Yes, something that has salary controls, but not something that's so draconian the players will reject it as just another attempt to break their ranks.

Bettman and the owners have played hardball by locking out the players and trying to get them to sign a new CBA on their knees. The players did misjudge the owners resolve, but they undoubtedly know that soon, very soon, those teams are gonna have to canvass their season ticket holders, and the response from those fans could well dictate how much longer this lockout continues.

And that could see a decidedly different change of tune from the NHL.

Tom Benjamin has more on this topic. One thing's certain, there will be resolution to this dispute at some point this year.

- Very interesting bit over at Hockey Trade Rumors as to what each NHL club could look like under a new CBA with a salary cap. Definitely worth a look.

It appears that those teams that are either stocked with young, affordable talent or slashed payroll prior to the lockout could be in the best shape whenever the NHL returns to action with its players.

MARCH 13: ONLY ONE REAL OPTION.

According to TSN's Bob McKenzie, Gary Bettman has the owners mulling over six possible options for starting up the 2005-06 season.

These options have already been broken down by several bloggers, as well as McKenzie himself, but since I didn't get the chance to offer up my own two cents when this story first appeared, now seems as good a time as any.

As broken down by Mark Stepneski, here's the six:

*Negotiated settlement
*The lockout continues
*82-game schedule using exclusively replacement players
*60-game schedule using exclusively replacement players
*Declaring impasse and playing 82-game schedule using replacement players and whatever NHLPA members cross
*Declaring impasse and playing 60-game schedule using replacement players and whatever NHLPA members cross

The latter two aren't going to be palatable for the owners, although they'll likely hold that impasse threat over the heads of the players from now until the end of May as a pressure tactic to force them into getting a new CBA in place.

The definitive reason why the league would prefer to avoid an impasse comes from William Gould, former head of the National Labor Relations Board, in an interview with CBC:

If the players' union files its charge, a regional district office of the NLRB will investigate the complaint. The local office (in this case, it will likely be the New York City office because that's where the NHL's headquarters are located) will probably consult the General Counsel's office of the NLRB in Washington, D.C., in making its ruling. On average, the field office takes a month before issuing a decision, but it could expedite the matter because of the high visibility of the case.

The field office's decision can be appealed by the league or the players' union to the NLRB's office of appeals in the General Counsel's office. This final decision can't be appealed, so if the office of appeals rules in favour of the league, the NHLPA's case would end right then and there. The NHL would then be able to impose a new economic system that closely resembles - but is not necessarily identical to - their last offer at the bargaining table, as determined by the NLRB.

If, however, the office of appeals rules in favour of the NHLPA, the union's complaint would then go to the General Counsel's office.

Gould elaborates to CBC as to how long it could take once the complaint goes that far:

The General Counsel's office of the NLRB will conduct a formal hearing (which would likely last four weeks) presided over by an administrative law judge a month or two after the NHLPA's complaint was filed.

This is where this relatively slow, cumbersome procedure begins to unfold. All the relative parties (Gary Bettman, Bob Goodenow et al) would be subpoenaed and the judge would be listening to their testimony, as well as reviewing written transcripts of the negotiating sessions between the two sides.

Once all the evidence is presented, the hearing will conclude and both sides will have approximately 30 days to file a brief, a document that outlines their argument in full and the decision they want from the judge. Once completed, the judge will then make a ruling. By this time, four or five months will have elapsed since the union filed its complaint.

The administrative judge's ruling can be appealed to the NLRB's five-member board in Washington, adding several more months to the procedure. Once the board rules, that decision can be appealed to the Circuit Courts of Appeals, which is the level immediately below the U.S. Supreme Court.

At this point, the procedure likely will have have dragged on anywhere from 12 to 18 months. Once the Circuit Court of Appeals rules, either side can file a petition with the U.S. Supreme Court to review the issue. Traditionally, the majority of these petitions are denied, but just filing the petition and having the U.S. Supreme Court decide whether it will hear the case adds several more months to the procedure.

If the review process is pursued to the fullest and it gets to the point where either side is in a position to file a petition to the U.S. Supreme Court, it could be more than two years before a final decision is made.

"So what?", I hear some of you say - yes, I can hear you say it. How else to explain the voices in my head?

Anyway, so what? The NHL could still start up next season with replacement players whilst awaiting the ruling on the NHLPA's complaint if it were to take weeks or even months for a decision to be reached.

Yes, it could, provided the NLRB doesn't file an injunction preventing the NHL from unilaterally imposing its cost certainty and bringing in replacements until a decision by the Board is reached. According to Gould, this would be to the NHLPA's advantage, given how long the process toward a ruling could take.

It would also mean the previous CBA would go into effect, which from a PR standpoint has the potential to be quite embarrassing for the owners.

Gould does forewarn that the current Board members are "very conservative and considered pro-employer". That may be what the owners are counting on, but even so, it's not a given that the board would rule in the league's favour if the PA can successfully prove the league didn't negotiate in good faith.

If the NLRB slaps the league with an injunction, not only would its impasse plans be dead in the water, but so too any possibility of exclusively hiring replacement players.

It really doesn't matter if the league comes forward with any of the last four options or the number of games they play but rather how many of those fans actually buy tickets to turn out and watch those games.

I know a majority of polled hockey fans claim they'll watch the NHL if it returns with replacement players. It might be easier if the teams slash ticket prices in half, considering most or all of those replacements depending on the scenario will be of minor league calibre, which could make them second-rate talent playing under the plodding defensive trap systems preached by most NHL coaches.

Even if the league returns with new rules with those replacements, the lack of NHL-caliber skill could result in those rule changes having little effect on the quality of the game, especially if those eager-to-please, star-struck replacements play the defensive systems espoused by most NHL coaches.

Under that scenario, it's unlikely the fan support for a replacement stocked NHL will remain strong, if it's that strong at all.

But if those prices aren't dramatically reduced, support for replacement players will erode quickly.

Those fans who say they'll support an replacement-stocked NHL talk a good game, but if they're ponying up NHL prices to watch minor-league talent, that tune is gonna change.

Basically, those four options involving replacements are a gamble by the league. They'll be counting on the majority of fans to come out and support them with the majority of the NHLPA members on the picket line.

They may see it in the short term, but by December, there will likely be a dramatic drop-off in attendence. NHL fans are hardcore, but they're not going to have their intelligence insulted paying top dollar for a crappier product than what they've paid for over the past decade.

"Ah, but Spector, what if a significant number of NHLPA members cross the picket line? The talent level of those replacement rosters will increase, and the PA's resolve will collapse."

Yes, it could. The NHL players resolve will face the ultimate test this fall if the league ices replacements, and with reports of European teams apparently demanding those NHL players wishing to play with them next season sign on for the entire season, that might not be a short-term option worth considering for most players.

But as we've discovered since September, the players hung tough when their critics anticipated them folding like cheap lawn chairs by February when the bills piled up and the money ran out. It would be folly to assume they'll cave in so quickly this fall.

Allowing the lockout to continue is also a distasteful option for the owners. Even if the replacement scenario isn't as successful as the owners hope, they'll at least be icing a product, making some money at the gate, and hopefully keeping their sponsors and ESPN happy.

The league hierarchy and the owners need to return to action this fall. The thought of losing the start of next season after losing all of 2004-05 is simply unacceptable.

Thus the only real option for the NHL is a negotiated settlement with the NHLPA.

A new CBA in place by May would generate excitement amongst hockey fans. The entry draft could go off as usual in late June, and with Sidney Crosby considered the top pick for this year, it could be one of the most anticipated in NHL history, especially when one considers some form of a weighted lottery system would be used to determine who gets the first overall pick.

The summer would be spent by teams busily re-signing their Group II free agents and doing the usual shopping in the unrestricted free agent market, which would commence on July 1.

And let's not forget trades. The summer will be rife with speculation, which would further stoke interest from die hard fans eager to find out what their favourite clubs' rosters will look like prior to the start of the 2005-06 season.

It would also give the numbers for my site a big boost, which in turn would mean more advertising money for yours truly, meaning I wouldn't have to dip into my own pocket to keep this site afloat. Trade and free agent rumours are my bread-and-butter, and while this lockout has in my own humble opinion (yours may vary) made me a better writer, rumour and trade coverage is what drives this site's popularity and helps pay the bills.

Best of all, it would give the league an entire summer to stump for those season ticket dollars, stroke those sponsors whose support of the league might be wavering, and to negotiate a new contract with ESPN.

The other five options simply aren't worth considering.

Both sides have flayed each other raw since last September. Both have felt the financial pain. Dragging this out into next season isn't going to improve matters. Indeed, regardless of which side "wins", the bitterness of this battle will hang like an foul-smelling fog over the league over the course of the next CBA, setting up for yet another contentious labour battle in the future, one which could sound the death knell for the NHL as we know it.

Common sense dictates a negotiated settlement by May is the only recourse. Unfortunately, common sense has been a scarce commodity on both sides.

MARCH 12: THE NEXT CHAPTER BEGINS.

TORONTO (March 11, 2005): Representatives of the NHLPA and NHL met for approximately 1 ½ hours today in Toronto. The NHLPA was represented by Bob Goodenow, Executive Director, Ted Saskin, Senior Director, Ian Pulver, Associate Counsel and outside Counsel John McCambridge. The League was represented by Gary Bettman, Bill Daly, David Zimmerman and Bob Batterman.

At the conclusion of today's meeting, NHLPA Executive Director Bob Goodenow released the following statement:

“Gary and I engaged in general discussions today and we plan to meet again next week for further dialogue. There were no proposals exchanged today.”

And here we go again.

I must confess, I was surprised at how quickly they got back to the negotiating table. Not that I doubted the NHLPA would take up the NHL's request. Bob Goodenow and his band of merry men would've been crack-brained fools not to. They certainly don't want to give Gary Bettman and his counsel anything that could foil the PA's attempts to prevent the league from unilaterally imposing cost certainty.

And that calls for a little clarification. As noted by CBC in an interview with William Gould, former head of the National Labor Relations Board in the United States, the league doesn't need NLRB permission to declare an impasse. Indeed, they can do it at any time.

Should that occur, it's up to the NHLPA to file a "bad faith" complaint with the NLRB, and then prove it in a hearing before the board.

I had originally believed that's how the process went, but over the course of this lockout and in doing research, several media reports suggested the league had to file for an impasse with the NLRB and like a dumbass I fell in with that line of thought.

That's what happens when you trust the media. Of course, we'll just ignore the fact I'm a part of it, albeit as a freelance ink-stained wretch. Let's just consider this my mea culpa and move on.

Yes, enough of that, back to the topic at hand.

As I was saying, I wasn't surprised the PA agreed to meet with the league, only by agreeing to do it so soon.

I would've thought Goodenow, Ted Saskin, Trevor Linden and the rest of the executive would've preferred tightening the screws a little, using their advantage now that leverage has switched over to them.

After months of pressuring the players, the NHL now finds itself under time constraints. They want to get a deal in place with the players by no later than May in order to have the ink dry in time to run the June Entry Draft, allow clubs to re-sign players, re-stock their rosters, schmooze their impatient sponsers and entice their jaded season ticket holders to come back.

The clock is ticking now for Bettman and the owners, so I thought the PA would like to watch them squirm a little. Not refuse to come back to the table, just to take their time, say a couple of weeks, in order to "get affairs in order", to "consult with the player reps and agents", that sort of nonsense.

Perhaps, however, the players are feeling the pressure as much as the league?

Despite the ravings of league media sycophants and some of the fans, the players aren't stupid. They know what's at stake here for themselves and the league.

Like the owners, they too are sailing into uncharted waters in the aftermath of a cancelled season, and understand only too well that the longer this goes, the less money there could be in the pot.

But as always, what they want is to make sure they're going to get what they consider is their fair share of whatever is left.

Let's not forget, the players were willing to sacrifice an entire year of salaries, but most aren't as keen to risk losing another season's worth.

Some believe the reason the league sought this meeting so soon was they may be trying to prevent Bain and Game Plan from gaining allies amongst the NHL owners in their attempts to purchase the entire league.

Don't believe it.

Hey, I wouldn't be surprised if there were a few owners who looked at that initial bid, and the possibility of a much larger one in the future, and thought to themselves, "Why do I need this continued aggravation of owning a hockey team? Sell now, make some coin on the deal, and let Bain and Game Plan enjoy the albatross settling around their collective necks!"

But it takes the owners of all thirty clubs to agree, and there's no way in hell big market owners like Mike Illich, Ed Snider and Jeremy Jacobs are going to sell their cash cows.

The true reason is less intriguing: the NHL needs to get back into business for next October, one way or the other, and they'd prefer to return with their players.

This lockout hurt the league as much as the players. ESPN threatened to pull the pin unless the league got back on the ice in October. Considering Gary Bettman's and the owners' insistence on returning in October, that threat from America's sports network (and yes, Mark Shapiro, you can use that, for a small fee, like enough money for me to float on for the rest of my life. Since I reside in Canada, that shouldn't cost you that much!) had the desire effect.

The league needs to keep its sponsors happy. We've heard rumours of at least two threatening to pack it in if the NHL doesn't return to action next season, and it's quite likely many of the other sponsors are "examining their options" too.

And of course, there's the real moneymakers, the season ticket holders. The league needs all their teams to sell an average of 13,000 season ticket every season. With no guarantees for a season, no season ticket monies.

Which means trouble with the banks and credit for some teams.

Some may look at the agreement of both sides to meet again next week as "positive", but it's far too early at this point of this chapter to make that assumption.

Yeah, they're talking again, which is better than nothing, but only marginally.

No surprises that there were no proposals made by both sides, since they've opted to start over again. Once proposals start flying around again, then perhaps we can start gauging progress or examining the entrails for positive signs.

Sounds a little jaded, doesn't it?

Well, that's to be expected. I've been following this story on a daily basis since September. It's been like watching the members of someone's family squabbling over who's going to get Mom's fine china after she's shuffled off the mortal coil.

In a word, sickening.

I wasted far too much time following stories of potential breakthroughs that never panned out, rumours of one side or the other on the verge of collapse, of speculations a deal was close that never came to be.

Sorry, but the excitement isn't there.

In the coming weeks, we'll start hearing more of the same gobbledegook that dominated the hockey news since September. There will be comments from the respective talking heads on both sides. "Insiders" will once again regale us with tales of imminent resolutions or potential breakdowns. More mud will be slung by both sides, using the press as their respective catapults.

As May approaches, expect negotiations to truly ramp up and for the news-starved, underemployed hockey media to provide daily coverage of the "who-said-what" details of the talks.

Will there be a May resolution? I hope so, but I don't think we're going to see it. I fear this showdown will be settled before the National Labour Relations Board.

This hasn't been a fun ride for any of us, folks, and I don't expect the coming months to be much better. So keep the motion sickness bags on standby.

Otherwise, it's great to be back!

MARCH 5 & 6

LOCKOUT NEW ROUNDUP.

Hey there, gang, sorry this one is going up so late today (mid-afternoon on Sunday), but I was up rather late last night, unwinding after pounding out three articles to send to Foxsports this coming week, so I blew off a little too much steam.

As noted yesterday, I'll be out of town for a few days this week, starting Monday and won't be back until Friday. So to tide you all over, here's a few musings on the latest news on the lockout front.

While I'm away, why not check out the hockey blogs I noted and linked to yesterday. I think you'll find they'll fill the void while I'm gone, and no, I'm not worried about you not coming back, dear readers. After all, you've stuck with me this far, so I know you'll wanna finish the ride with me to see where we all end up.

- Kevin Paul Dupont, Hall of Fame hockey writer for the Boston Globe, believes the so-called solidarity of the NHL Players Association will crumble if the NHL should return next fall with replacement players.

Generally, I think life breaks down into three sizes — small, medium and large. Ergo, I'm willing to bet at least one-third of the rank-and-file, about 250, would have crossed over this spring if the league had successfully imposed contract conditions. Now, add another six months to the waiting game, leading up to October 2005, and I'm willing to bet at least half of the “mediums” would be eager to cross the line.

If I'm correct — and again, this is ALL guess work — that would have some 350 players crossing the line. If so, it's over for the NHLPA as we know it. With half the workers across, others quickly will follow, to say nothing of the free agents around the world who'll come a runnin'.

Goodbye, union.

At least Dupont is wise enough to label this as guess work on his part.

Yes, it is possible that, if the NHL returns with replacements, that a third or possibly even half of the NHLPA membership could cross the union picket line, since the PA would be on strike if replacements are hired.

That being said, however, some media critics of the players - and Dupont is one of them - also doubted the PA's solidarity in the face of potentially losing the season.

They didn't believe the players or their agents would stand for losing more than half a season, let alone an entire one. Those critics believed that, come January, the rank-and-file guys would miss their NHL paycheques, as would the powerful and influential agents like Don Meehan, Pat Brisson and JP Barry, and either pressure Bob Goodenow and the NHLPA executive to cut a deal to save the season, or would rise up and oust him in order to replace him with someone else willing to work with Commissioner Gary Bettman and the owners toward getting a deal done.

We've all seen how that turned out. If anything, what got some players upset with Goodenow was the sudden switch from "no cap" to "yes, we'll accept one", but as Goodenow explained to the players, that was done because the league agreed to take linking their salaries to revenues off the table.

He also knew that, if the PA agreed to a cap, but one set above $49 million, the owners would reject it. In this way, should the NHL try to file for an impasse with the NLRB this summer, Goodenow can use that as proof that no impasse exists.

It's risky, however, and no guarantee it'll work, given the NLRB is staffed with pro-business people, but I think even Bettman knows getting an impasse when both sides agreed to move off the prime sticking points will be a tough sell.

Regardless, the point is, critics doubted the players resolve in the face of losing an entire season's worth of pay, and while there were mutterings of discontent from time to time, the PA never folded, Goodenow wasn't ousted, and they appear as united as they were when the lockout began last September.

That doesn't mean the critics may not be right this time around, but it's by no means a sure thing.

- One of Dupont's readers also asked the following question:

What will be more valuable after the lockout ends, a top-notch general manager or coach?

Dupont suggests a heretofore unknown party known as a "capologist" like those employed by NFL teams could be more important under a cap system.

If the NHL's New Deal includes a cap — a virtual certainty now — then most clubs will have a front-office employee charged with finding loopholes in the cap, and finding creative ways to crunch the numbers. Most NFL and NBA teams have capologists. A whiz with a calculator can be more important than the coach who is adept with X's and O's, or a GM who has a “feel” for talent.

Bingo! I've been saying that since last fall. A hard salary cap can be skirted and you can bet NHL teams will hire people to help them find those loopholes...as will the player agents.

Dupont believes the GM will be more valuable after the lockout, which I concur. A salary cap isn't going to make every GM smarter. It'll be interesting to see how the big market guys make out with limits on their spending, so the inside track in the early going may be small market guys like Edmonton's Kevin Lowe, Calgary's Daryl Sutter, Minnesota's Doug Risebrough and of course, Jay Feaster, GM of the defending Cup champion Tampa Bay Lightning.

- Larry Brooks of the NY Post suggests a plan for "peace in our time" in ending the NHL labour war.

His proposals are radical, but there's no way the NHL owners will ever accept them. Larry's been a cheerleader for the PA throughout the lockout, but to his credit, he has been a valuable source of information as to the details of the offers from both sides, no doubt thanks to his access to the NHLPA hierarchy.

I agree with Brooks that it's time for some original thinking and creative concepts, but remember, this is the NHL we're talking about, not the most forward-thinking group of people, and that includes both sides.

He's also right on another count: the bitterness of this dispute must end and the healing must begin. Both sides have to stop with the mud-slinging, and that the media sycophants on both sides.

- Ottawa Sun pundit Chris Stevenson believes hockey fans might flock to see an NHL stocked with replacement players than a rival league with NHLPA stars.

He's probably right, since the NHL has name recognition as do the teams, but the numbers won't be as high, especially if the NHL teams are charging NHL prices to ice teams with minor league talent.

Given a choice, I think most fans would opt to see replacement players. You think the replacements might be a little motivated? You don't think they will play hockey the way it's supposed to be played?

Those players may be motivated, but remember, they're going to be playing for NHL coaches, many of whom preach the defensive trapping systems that have helped suck the life out of the game over the past ten years.

Combine that with second-rate talent, and I don't think you're going to see a better product.

At the Kanata Sports Club Friday afternoon, where I was a guest on the Hotseat, I asked the crowd how many of them would buy tickets (we suggested in the $30-range) to watch replacement players.

A little less than half of them put up their hands.

Very unscientific, of course.

Yet also rather telling, don'tcha think? I dunno about you, fellow hockey fans, but I'll be damned if I'd pay over $30 bucks a head to take my family to watch an NHL game with stocked with minor leaguers.

Heck, the three of us can watch the PEI Rocket for the average price of an NHL ticket ($45.00 prior to the lockout).

Those QMJHL kids are motivated because they're hoping to one day make it in the NHL, and they play hockey the way it's supposed to be played.

So, given the choice between watching a good QMJHL game for less than fifty bucks for my family of three (If we buy the family game pack for $48 bucks, we get hot dogs and soft drinks thrown in), or pay $150 bucks (concessions included) to watch a replacement player NHL, I think I'll stick with the QMJHL.

But you'd have to guess the Senators would probably be happy to have crowds in the 9,000-range for games at the Corel Centre featuring replacement players.

When they're used to drawing over 17,000 per game? Since the average ticket price to watch a Sens game was $52.36 last season, I don't foresee that price dropping into the "$30.00 range" if they return with replacements, do you?

I love the Montreal Canadiens, but I sure as hell wouldn't waste $40 bucks on a ticket to watch them return with a replacement-laden roster of minor leaguers. And no, Habs fans, the Canadiens won't be lowering ticket prices. Pierre Boivin said as much to Stan Fischler last fall.

But hey! It's your money. If you wanna spend top dollar to watch second-rate talent, fill your boots!

- Caroline Hurricanes owner Pete Karmanos Jr. claims neither he or his fellow owners want to break the union.

Perhaps not, but they'd sure like to limit its power.

MARCH 5: ENJOY THE BLOGOSPHERE.

Today's gonna be a light day of posting, friends. I've got three (3!) articles for Foxsports.com to prepare for next week as I'm going to be in Halifax on business from Monday to Thursday (stupid day job!).

Unfortunately I have no way of updating my site during those days away, although I should have a lovely pre-written column to post up on Monday, as well as (hopefully) my usual update for tomorrow.

The Foxsports gig helps pay the bills so I gotta devote my attention to that. That doesn't mean you good readers who've stuck with me over the course of this lockout aren't important to me. You are. You've given me a reason to keep this site active during this long nightmare that is the NHL lockout, rather than shutting it down and devoting all my energies toward my Foxsports column.

But like I said, I gotta pay the bills, so the free-lance column gets priority.

Besides, you guys could probably use a break from my daily rantings anyway, and the few days away will give me an opportunity to re-charge my batteries

Anyway, to help you folks pass the time while I'm away next week, here's a list of my favourite hockey blogs, which are staffed by good, knowledgeable writers. You'll find interesting observations on the state of the game you might not find in most media outlets, even if at times I may not agree with their opinions.

I'm not listing these in any particular order, nor am I ranking them. Last time I did that, a couple of those folks that I singled out for praise actually got miffed at me for my comments. We smoothed things out via e-mails, but it was a lesson to me. In this glorious age of the computer, it's still possible for misunderstandings to occur.

Tom Benjamin.

Gunner's Web Blog.

James Mirtle.

Blueshirt Bulletin (Dubi Silverstein).

The Hockey Rodent.

Jes Golbez.

Steven Ovadia.

Mark Stepneski.

Hockeybird.

Off-Wing Opinion (Eric McErlain).

Hockey Nation.

Brett Mirtle (James' cousin).

Jon Swenson (Sharkspage.com).

The Ice Block.

Gary Bettman Sucks.

CARTOON CORNER.

Yet another from regular contributor GoSharks! Enjoy!

MARCH 4: LOCKOUT NEWS ROUNDUP.

We're heading into yet another weekend so let's get caught up with the latest, shall we?

-WHO'D WANNA BUY THE NHL? That was the question I asked myself after reading reports yesterday that "investment firm and a sports advisory company reportedly made a joint proposal to buy all 30 NHL teams for as much as $3.5 billion."

Yes, Bain Capital Partners LLC and Game Plan International, who apparently have too much time on their hands and far too much money to throw down a rat-hole, made a 30-minute presentation offer to the NHL owners on Wednesday.

This group are basing their offer on the hope that there would be some NHL owners looking to get out of the hockey business given the labour strife of the past year.

According to the Toronto Sun, the league said, "thanks but no thanks".

Still, ya gotta wonder just how many owners eyes lit up when they saw that offer.

It may seem absurd that anyone would wanna buy into this dog's dinner called the National Hockey League, but remember, you buy something when its value is low, try to improve it and then either watch it turn major profits or sell it and make a profit.

One also has to wonder if there might be another pitch coming from this group in the near future.

AGENTS ONSIDE WITH GOODENOW. Well, colour me shocked. The players agents met with NHLPA honcho Bob Goodenow on Wednesday and, despite probably a few heated words, they all emerged onside with Goodenow.

It was a pipe dream to suggest the agents might sway Goodenow or try to overthrow him. The major players - Don Meehan, Pat Brisson, Ritch Winter, JP Barry - are still onside, and as long as they're supporting Goodenow, he's in good shape to carry on the fight against the league.

Those agents also said they'd refuse to represent a replacement player and would drop any client thinking of being a replacement.

Some critics may call that empty rhetoric, but remember, folks thought those agents wouldn't stand by and risk the cancellation of an entire season, yet it happened, and they're still supporting Goodenow and the NHLPA executive.

Unless there's a major stampede of NHL'ers looking to become replacement players, I expect their agents will stick by their word, since most of their clients are still sticking with Goodenow.

WHICH AGENTS ARE ON GOODENOW'S NAUGHTY LIST? Goodenow told the assembled agents on Wednesday that there were a handful of agents he was upset with for attempting to broker a deal with the NHLPA. He said he wasn't going to name them except that they weren't in attendance yesterday.

Look for the media to try to pin down which agents attended the meeting in order to find out the "guilty parties".

Wonder how long those particular agents will remain certified?

A SPECIAL PLAN? The Ottawa Sun's Bruce Garrioch claims Goodenow told the agents he has a plan to end the lockout but refused to tell them what it is. In other words: mind your own business.

I dunno about you but I doubt that powerful agents like Don Meehan and Pat Brisson would sit still for that kind of thing. I also doubt they'd emerge singing Goodenow's praises.

Giving Garrioch the benefit of the doubt, if Goodenow does have a plan to end the lockout, NOW would be a good time to unveil it!

NHL OFFER NOT AS GOOD AS IT SEEMED? That's the claim of the NY Post's Larry Brooks, who said he's "learned" what the NHL's last offer of a $42.5 million cap wasn't what it appeared.

"The Post has learned that the league's offer of a $42.5M team ceiling — that would have included a 50-percent tax beginning at $36M — featured the following elements that the NHL did not release to the public when it plastered the proposal on its various web sites:

All annual individual signing bonuses contained in contracts.

All personal achievement bonus payouts.

All contract buyouts.

All annual signing bonuses for players in Entry Level System.

All players on Injured Reserve.

All players in minor leagues earning over $75,000.

As such, the PA computes the actual NHL-roster cap number as approximately $39M per team — if not less — under the last proposal. "

Eek!

If this was what the league was offering, no wonder the PA rejected it.

Now I don't have a problem with the league encorporating signing and performance bonuses into the contracts, especially if they're prorated, since this is something the NFL does and it works well for them and the NFLPA.

Incorporating buyouts, injured reserve salaries and those of minor leaguers earning over $75K seems to me to be pushing it.

As Dubi Silverstein of Blueshirt Bulletin notes, teams receive insurance payments for some injuries whilst minor league players generate revenue that isn't part of the league's accounting.

Dubi sums it up thusly:"The latter two items, as we've pointed out elsewhere, were among the more ludicrous aspects of the Levitt Report -- especially injuries, where salaries counted fully against player costs while insurance claims were credited against non-player costs."

GRETZKY'S MOTHER AILING: Phyllis Gretzky is battling lung cancer. Here's hoping she can overcome this. Send her a prayer if you're of the praying persuasion, or "get-well" thoughts if you're not.

BRING IN THE "HOCKEY PEOPLE". NHLPA president Trevor Linden says he'd like to see more hockey people getting involved in the negotiation process to get a deal in place for next season.

Linden would like to see more team presidents and general managers having a say in the process, bemoaning the fact that so far it's been players talking to lawyers.

He even went so far as to invite Philadelphia Flyers GM Bob Clarke to get involved, a classy act considering Clarke's spiteful claims than Bob Goodenow was destroying the league earlier this week.

OK, so cynics might suggest Linden was merely trying to score PR points with his invitation to Clarke, but you've gotta admit, it was a shrewd move by Linden, who certainly has a future either in the PA hierarchy, or potentially as a general manager or team president himself one day.

Considering the stalemate we've seen thus far in negotiations, bringing in some fresh blood and ideas might not be a bad idea, but I'd also wanna see some player agents like Meehan and Brisson getting involved.

And I'd keep the loose lipped hawks like Clarke and Mike Milbury out of it. Moderates, not hardliners, are what's required now.

SNIDER VS GOODENOW: Tom Benjamin has the details.

I'm not sure what Ed Snider's background in the manly art of fisticuffs would be. Goodenow, meanwhile, "played on the same Junior Red Wings teams as Mark and Marty Howe...went on to captain the varsity hockey team at Harvard and play on the U.S. National Team in 1974-75. He then played two season with Flint of the International Hockey League" (Source: Money Players). Recognizing he lacked the talent to make it at the NHL level, he left hockey to finish his education.

Why is this relevant?

Because it's a safe bet that Goodenow probably saw his share of hockey fights in his day, particularly in the good old IHL of the mid-1970s, when goon hockey - as popularized by Snider's "Broadstreet Bullies" - was the rage at all levels of North American pro hockey.

I'd say he's probably dropped the gloves and chucked a few knuckles himself in his day. In other words, one-on-one against a senior citizen intent on choking him, I think the middle-aged Goodenow can take care of himself.

Compare Snider with Goodenow. Now remember Snider is almost 72 and was diagnosed (and successfully treated) for Celiac Disease.

Unless Snider knows karate and other Asian words for self-defence, I don't like his odds.

MARCH 3: POINT/COUNTERPOINT.

It's been a while - over a month - since I last offered up a rebuttal to a pundit's comments. The past month was extremely busy, given the drama of the frantic negotiations leading up to the cancellation of the season, the failed attempts to "un-cancel" it, and the subsequent fallout from fans and media.

But now comes the latest from MSG Network's Stan Fischler, whose latest article on the road ahead in this labour war I felt was worth commenting on.

His comments are italicized, mine are in normal type.

What's more, the league seems more determined than ever to start the 2005-2006 season next October.

"We as a league are committed to working toward opening the 2005-2006 season," said Commissioner Gary Bettman. "And I encourage the Players' Association back to the table in the immediate future to further that objective."

The NHL cannot afford to have this lockout carry on into next season. They're starting to feel the effects of the lost season. ESPN is publicly suggesting they may not pick up the option year in their contract with the league for next season. There's talk of at least two major sponsors dumping their accounts with the NHL. There's also the loss of season ticket money, which each club relies upon as their primary source of revenue.

One way or another, the NHL will be back this fall.

Without saying so explicitly, NHL leaders are giving the impression that - if necessary - replacement players may be one of several options which the league will use to get arenas back in action.

That's not going to be easy. The league will have to file for an impasse with the US National Labor Relations Board, and given the fact the owners decided to take salary linkage to revenues off the table, and the NHLPA agreed to accept a hard salary cap, the NLRB could decide no impasse exists.

If that happens, the NHL is screwed. They'll have to get a deal in place with the players quickly if they're to start the '05-'06 season on time, and that could mean swallowing the $49 million cap level the PA made in their last offer.

"We had 30 owners who were in absolute unanimity in terms of where we're going to go from here," said Ottawa Senators owner Eugene Melnyk. "A plan is being developed."

And that plan conceivably could include some players who are not card-carrying members of the NHLPA as well as NHLer not exactly buying the Goodenow no-play plank.

This is an option the owners are seriously considering, no question, but if that plan is based upon NHLPA members crossing the picket line (the PA would go on strike if the NLRB rules in favour of the league) and those who aren't NHLPA members, it could become a house built upon sand - a weak foundation.

Any PA member who crosses the picket line will be ostracized by the other players. That could mean tense dressing rooms whenever the lockout finally ends.

More importantly, the agent who negotiates any deals for clients who decide to cross that line will face the wrath of the NHLPA hierarchy and that could include decertification, which is the equivilant of being told, "you'll never work in this town again, buddy".

Any agent worth his salt isn't going to risk that, especially if the client signs a deal worth considerably less than what he may have received under a better deal. Moreover, the last thing that agent wants is his pro-Goodenow clients threatening to dump his ass for negotiating a deal for a scab.

As for non-NHLPA members, again, easier said than done.

Sure, aging AHL and ECHL players might jump at the chance as they know realistically they'll never get another opportunity to play under the NHL banner.

But the younger players, those still hoping for a shot at a long-term career in the big time, aren't going to risk jeopardizing that chance by angering the NHLPA, especially when they know their employment could last less than a season, conceivably only a few weeks.

"We're going to invite the union back to the table soon," said Bettman. "The more the damage, the less money ultimately we're going to have to pay players. It's in everybody's interest (to reach a deal soon)."

Bettman is right on this count. The league is starting to feel the damage the season cancellation has wrought. If this lockout stretches into next season, there could be fewer sponsers and season ticket holders and even no ESPN contract. That'll hurt the league and in turn it'll hurt the players whenever they return to action.

On the other hand, Linden - echoing his unit's strategy - sounded as if he was in no rush to see talks re-launched.

"It's important," said Linden, "for both sides to take a little time to reassess. Obviously, the process at this point hasn't worked and we'll step back and have a look back at how we can move this thing forward."

From now until the end of May, the leverage switches to the players side. They'll want to gauge just how desperate the league is to get a deal in place to allow the off-season to go off as normal, and exploit that to gain a better deal than the league's last offer of a $42.5 million cap with no linkage.

The league's hope is to talk soon so as to reach an agreement that would be hammered out well before the June Entry Draft.

That would enable teams to market their tickets and a revived NHL over the Summer so that the league would start the 2005-2006 season in full stride.

It will also allow the Entry Draft to go off as per normal, as well as give teams the time they need to re-sign those players eligible for Group II free agency and to re-sign those eligible for unrestricted free agent status.

Following that, the teams will see how much room they have on their payrolls to fill whatever gaps remain via trades or free agency.

It'll also allow the league time to consider whatever rule changes they'll want to implement prior to the start of next season, as well as smooth relations with their sponsors and ESPN.

I specifically asked Bettman whether he believed that the union now held the leverage Ace-in-the-hole. He didn't think so.

"The more the damage (to the league), the less money ultimately we're going to have to pay players," the Commissioner replied. "It's in everybody's interest (to reach a deal soon)."

Yep, but if both sides continue to negotiate with each other like the Hatfields and McCoys, this could drag on for months.

What's more, a leading NHL attorney, who participated in the meeting tells me that - from a legal viewpoint - the union must accept the league's invitation or be guilty of failing to negotiate in good faith.

Should the National Labor Relations Board be called upon to address the dispute some time down the line, an NHLPA refusal would favor the league in any NLRB decision-making.

I'll be shocked if Bob Goodenow and Ted Saskin were that stupid. Every move they've made thus far in this lockout has been with one eye on a potential impasse situation, just like Bettman and Bill Daly. They're not going to hamper their case by refusing to return to the bargaining table.

There is a window of almost three months between now and the end of May 2005 to get a deal in place. The PA isn't going to reject returning to the bargaining table, but they could stall for a little while just to get under the owners skin, let them taste the same frustration they felt last fall when months went by without any offers from the league, spurring the PA into their 24% payroll rollback proposal.

While Bettman was pressed on the issue of "replacement players," a league attorney assured me that it was a misnomer.

In addition to minor league players who could conceivably be signed, the NHL also could dip into a player pool that would include Junior hockey stars - Sidney Crosby is the foremost example -- who would become free agents.

I wouldn't count on landing too many of those kids. Remember, most of them have NHLPA-certified agents, and they'll tell those youngsters it would be in their best interest financially to either return to Junior for another season or consider offers from Europe rather than sign with the NHL when there is no CBA in place.

The NHL is proposing not only capping entry-level salaries at $850K, but they also suggested eliminating bonuses under those contracts. The PA suggested bonuses up to $850K, but the league apparently wants that chopped to $350K.

If there is no CBA in place and those kids become free agents, the NHL may instruct their owners to sign them at $850K with no bonus. You can bet their agents will instruct the kids to hold out and wait for a better deal.

As for Crosby, he's not a "foremost example", as the Rimouski Oceanic, his QMJHL team, stated if there is no CBA in place and consequently no draft, Crosby must return to them and honour the final year of his contract.

Furthermore, a large group of collegiate aces would be available in addition to Europeans as well as NHLers who would "cross-over" and sign with their teams.

And here's the fatal flaw with that argument: The Ottawa Citizen reported last December that immigration laws in Canada and the United States prohibits issuing work visas to replacement workers from other countries. Thus, you can rule out hiring Europeans. Canadian teams could only hire Canadian players, American teams Americans.

As for collegiate aces, if they don't have agent representation, then yes, they can sign up, but some of those kids will be like their peers in Junior hockey. The best collegiate players will have agents and most of those "aces" aren't likely to risk screwing themselves by signing an NHL contract that could seriously limit their earning power.

That Goodenow was able to "unite" his players surprised few who have studied the NHLPA leader's modus operandi.

"If there's one thing Bob does better than anything is deliver those rah-rah speeches," one NHL insider points out. "He's at his best as a cheerleader."

Hmmm, so lemme get this straight, Stan: when Bob Goodenow keeps his player membership of 750 united despite the adversities they've faced in recent weeks, he's just a "cheerleader", but when Bettman keeps the owners united and on page, he's a brilliant tactician?

At this point, Fischler went off on another anti-Goodenow rant, so I switched off.

One point I will agree with in his conclusion is that this thing could still drag on for months. There's no guarantee a deal will be in place by May, and that could see both sides heading toward a showdown with the NLRB this summer.

MARCH 2: BOB AND WEAVE.

it's been a while since Philadelphia Flyers general manager Bob Clarke lashed out at someone. Since this lockout started, Clarke has pretty much kept things low-key, by his standards, anyway.

Indeed, at one point, when Flyers netminder Robert Esche called NHL Commissioner Gary Bettman a "madman", Clarke spoke with Esche and had him apology for making that statement.

It was a wise decision by Clarke, who obviously thinks highly of Esche, as long as the latter doesn't fall on his face the way so many of his predecessors - hello there, Garth Snow, John Vanbiesbrouck, Brian Boucher and Roman Cechmanek - have over the past ten years between the Flyers pipes.

It's one thing for Esche to believe the commissioner is barking mad. It's another to publicly make that statement, even if such an insult is considered mild in today's potty-mouth world of sports trash-talk.

Those of us who've followed the Flyers GM over the years knew it would only be a matter of time until "Mount Bobby" erupted, and sure enough, Clarkie blew his stack on Sunday, when he blamed NHLPA honcho Bob Goodenow on Sunday for "hurting the game".

"We don't want Calgary to move, we don't want Edmonton to move," Clarke told The Canadian Press on Monday. "And even personally, I was sick when Quebec and Winnipeg moved. Someone has to grab Goodenow by the throat and tell him: `Look after the Canadian cities, the majority of the players still come from Canada.' It's our sport and to me Goodenow has shown no interest in helping build the game and helping sell the game.

"He's done nothing but take from the game," added Clarke. "And now he's fighting for power. He doesn't want to lose power, he doesn't want to lose his control over the players. And he doesn't want to lose as much of the control he's had over the game over the last 10-12 years. But when he had that power, he ruined it."

Goodenow, for his part, gives as good as he gets, and in this case, he hurled Clarke's charges back into his face.

"As Bob well knows, Gary Bettman and his owners group have been firmly in control. They have made every decision about expansion, franchise moves, playing rules, officiating, and marketing, while rejecting all input from players."

Decision: Goodenow.

It wasn't Goodenow who sold the Nordiques and Jets. It wasn't Goodenow who moved those franchises into the United States.

Indeed, the ink was barely dry on the last CBA, its impact barely felt, when the Nords and Jets packed up and left Quebec City and Winnipeg respectively.

Those franchises didn't depart because of salary escalations, although that's been the favourite mantra. Reality was, they left because their respective cities and provinces were unwilling to build big new venues for their owners, who looked at the arena-construction frenzy going on in other NHL cities and wanted to be part of the action.

When they didn't get those venues, those owners decided they could no longer afford to run professional hockey franchises in two small market Canadian cities and cashed in their chips.

Furthermore, Goodenow has no impact on what happens with the Canadian cities. That's up to their respective owners, their big market peers, and Commissioner Bettman.

If Clarke were so concerned about Canadian teams, maybe he should've shown a little more restraint with his payroll during the last CBA.

Oh, I'm sorry, when you're a big market GM, you spend whatever your owner will allow because that's free enterprise, and if small market teams can't cut, maybe they should get out of the game.

Judging by the Flyers' payrolls over the past five years, that certainly appears to be the philosophy of their front office.

Yes, the owners proclaim to be standing united against the NHLPA now, but they'll be back stabbing each other in the back in pursuit of the almighty dollar within weeks of a new CBA.

It's Darwinism in the purest sense when you're an NHL owner. Survival of the fittest, baby, and if you show a sign of weakness, the strong will be on you like a pack of rabid jackels, ripping apart your belly and splashing your blood on the walls.

Well, not really. What they do is help the good Commish shop around to find someone who can better run your franchise if you lack the intestinal fortitude and the bank account to run with the big boys.

I don't recall Clarke voicing his dismay over the Nords and Jets moving south of the border.

It's Goodenow's job to get the best collective bargaining agreement he can for his employers, the NHL players. It's NHL Commissioner Gary Bettman's job, along with the owners of the thirty teams, and general managers like Clarke, to build and sell the game.

Now, if that bunch wants Goodenow to share the spoils of victory or choke on the acrid fumes of futility, then perhaps they should allow him and the NHLPA to have a say in how the league is built and sold.

Perhaps they will, one day, allow the PA to have a say, but without the combative Goodenow as its head. The league will want a kinder, gentler face sitting across the table from them when that day comes, perhaps Mike Gartner's, or even Trevor Linden's, or Ted Saskin's.

Anyone but the spawn of Satan they call Goodenow.

As for Goodenow fighting for power, Clarke may be on to something there, although the NHLPA emerged from its respective love-fest on Tuesday pledging continued support for their executive director whilst professing union solidarity is stronger than ever.

Regardless of the public denials, some players were openly critical of Goodenow's handling of this standoff with the league, even to the point where a few key players tried to conduct back-channel talks of their own with Gary Bettman prior to the season cancellation.

For now, Goodenow, like his rival Bettman, remains firmly entrenched in his job. The Flyers GM can rant and rave, but ultimately he's wasting his words, breath and valuable newsprint.

Clarke was a highly respected player in his day, fully deserving of the accolades that came his way, the Kharlamov slash aside. He's yet to find the same success as a general manager, although he has a better track record than most, despite his obvious blind spot when it comes to goaltending.

Sometimes, however, I think he speaks before he fully engages his brain. It's like he's channeling the spirit of Harold Ballard, the cantankerous old felon who ran the Toronto Maple Leafs into the ground whilst laughing all the way to the bank, whenever he gets his dander up about something.

Thankfully, Clarke's mind hasn't slipped into jabbering dementia the way Pal Hal did at the end, although I'm sure a few of his critics will disagree.

Hey, I don't blame Clarke for being upset over how things have gone in this lockout. He has every right to be angry with Goodenow, and to a certain degree that anger is justified.

I also agree with him when he said, "If we don't get a CBA and don't have a draft and can't get selling tickets, selling to sponsors for next year, it's going to hurt a lot more. And there's going to be a lot less for the players, which in turn is going to hurt a lot more. If we can get something done I think we have a chance to rebound and be OK.

"But it has to be at least in time to have a draft, so we can sell tickets and get to our sponsors. I mean, it's not going to be that long before the sponsors' money goes somewhere else. That would hurt the game, the individual teams, but the players even more because there would be less for them."

But don't lay the blame for the struggles of Canadian small markets at Goodenow's feet.

Clarke and Ed Snider, along with most of their big-market peers, are the responsible ones by driving up salaries over the course of the previous CBA.

Perhaps if they'd shown restraint last time out, things wouldn't be so messy today.

And Gary Bettman wouldn't need an "idiot-proof" system to protect the NHL from the idiots.

If you don't want Calgary and Edmonton to move, Clarkie, perhaps you could convince Papa Snider and the other big markets to engage in some real revenue sharing?

Whoops, sorry, there I go again, thinking revenue-sharing concepts can survive in the dog-eat-dog world of the NHL.

Probably much easier to blame Goodenow.

MARCH 1: WHAT WE MISSED IN THE 2004-05 SEASON.

- The Tampa Bay Lightning defending their Stanley Cup title and (hopefully) contributing to changing the way the game is played with their speed and young stars.

- Jarome Iginla taking up the torch from Steve Yzerman and Mark Messier as the best team captain in the league.

- The Florida Panthers making the playoffs.

- The San Jose Sharks and Calgary Flames emerging as dominant clubs in the Western Conference.

- Chicago's Tuomo Ruutu proving he'll be long remembered as the best rookie player from the class of 2003-04.

- Alexander Ovechkin and Evgeny Malkin making splashy debuts.

- Martin St. Louis proving he's no "one-season wonder."

- The decline of the Toronto Maple Leafs and New Jersey Devils in the Eastern Conference.

- The rebuilding pains of the New York Rangers and Washington Capitals.

- The decline of the Colorado Avalanche, St. Louis Blues and the Dallas Stars in the Western Conference.

- Roberto Luongo proving he's the best goaltender in the world right now.

- Kari Lehtonen serving notice he'll be challenging Luongo in a few years.

- Ilya Kovalchuk and Dany Heatley as the most potent offensive "one-two" punch in the league.

- The continuing improvement of the Montreal Canadiens.

- The improvement of the Buffalo Sabres and Atlanta Thrashers.

- Scott Niedermayer winning his second Norris trophy.

- The last hurrahs of Mario Lemieux, Mark Messier, Steve Yzerman and Dave Andreychuk.

- The arrival of Vincent Lecavalier as a complete player.

- Rick Nash, Ilya Kovalchuk and Jarome Iginla battling once again for the Rocket Richard trophy.

- The Vancouver Canucks struggling to put the Todd Bertuzzi-Steve Moore incident behind them whilst giving goaltender Dan Cloutier one last chance to prove he can come through for them in the post-season.

- More empty seats in the Fleetcenter on Hallowe'en.

- The Ottawa Senators finding their goaltending problems won't improve with an aging Dominik Hasek between the pipes.

- The LA Kings with a healthier roster and Mathieu Garon taking the number one goalie slot away from Roman Cechmanek.

- Marian Gaborik regaining his offensive form in Minnesota to once again lead the Wild in scoring.

- The struggling Boston Bruins missing the playoffs.