LANDOVER — LANDOVER -- Even before the Washington Capitals' players stepped onto the USAir Arena ice for their only home game of the preseason last night, they had the distinct feeling that they were being shoved around by their opponent.
"All they want to do is bully us into their way of thinking," Don Beaupre, Washington's players union representative, said of the NHL. "They simply want to bring us to our knees."
Two days ago, NHL commissioner Gary Bettman announced that the Oct. 1 start of the regular season will be postponed if the league and the players association do not reach a collective bargaining agreement.
The sides have been without an agreement since Sept. 15, 1993. Bettman said he is pushing for an agreement now because he does not want to "turn the season into a complete disaster" by starting it without one.
"Mr. Bettman is making up the scenario as he goes along," said Washington left wing Kelly Miller, who is a member of the NHL Players Association bargaining committee. "What he says in public is not anything like what he says at the table.
"He's like Congress -- he puts his own spin on everything. In public he says he is not after a salary cap. But at the bargaining table, it's entirely different. It's entirely about a salary cap."
The players say Bettman has his own agenda. Beaupre speculates the commissioner never planned to open the season "unless we agreed to exactly what the owners want."
And Miller said he also senses that Bettman isn't being truthful across the bargaining table.
"They said they wanted to address the financial problems of the smaller markets, and our proposal did that," said Miller, in reference to a proposal that would tax all salaries and gate receipts and put that money into a fund that would be redistributed among teams that need the money. "But then that wasn't the issue."
Bettman appears intent on not losing the upper hand by starting the season and then having it stopped by a strike.
Miller said that while the players had not promised not to strike during the season, the likelihood of a strike was low given the NHLPA's history.
"In the entire history of this league the only time the players ever struck was when the owners threatened to take something away from us," said Miller. "Two years ago, they threatened to take away our licensing money. That's our lifeblood. That's the money we use to fight our legal battles. It was a major issue.
"The situation right now is that we think the NHL has taken off and we'd hate to see any kind of work stoppage and we've shown we're willing to do all we can to keep playing."
Even so, Bettman's statement that camps could remain open and players could continue to work out was met with skepticism.
"Do we keep playing preseason games, too, and charging admission, so the owners make money?" asked rookie Jason Allison. "I don't understand it at all. All I know is that there will be hockey one day."
Miller, who said he may miss Washington's last preseason game, in Quebec on Monday, to attend a bargaining session that day in Toronto, said the players have yet to discuss what to do if the season doesn't start and the camps remain open.
"It is unchartered territory," he said. "We've never been faced with this situation."
Veteran center Dave Poulin, who skated with the team yesterday for the first time since injuring knee ligaments four weeks ago, said he understands that the owners do not want to continue business as usual but wondered about their business sense.
"As we're talking and being told things can't continue the way they are, Buffalo agrees to a player contract [for Pat LaFontaine] worth $22 million and someone else agrees to one for $10 million," he said.
"If you own a team and want a salary cap, you have a salary cap," Poulin said. "It's called a budget. Some well-managed teams have done that -- Toronto, Montreal. They took their best player, made a long-term agreement, and everyone else fits in behind him. If the team starts making more money, with sellouts or a new radio deal or something, they have the power to restructure. If there is a league-wide salary cap, they don't have that option."