Absence of trust is main NHL thrust


You'll hear a lot in upcoming days about salary caps, arbitration and free agency -- or whatever twisted descriptions the commissioner uses -- but the real issue between the NHL and its players is trust.

There is precious little on either side.

The owners' point man, NHL commissioner Gary (Mr. Salary Cap) Bettman, has set Saturday -- the NHL's Opening Night -- as deadline for a collective bargaining agreement or the season will be postponed. He says the owners can't trust the players not to strike, as they did for 10 days in April 1992.

But the players don't trust the owners, either, even when they're allowed a rare look at the books that suggest some teams are losing money. The numbers are meaningless, players say, because they have heard rich owners brag openly about how they can make an $8 million profit look like an $8 million loss with 20 minutes of accounting.

And with the money players are making these days, they can understand that kind of creative work with numbers.

Egos and brinksmanship are a problem, too. Bettman might have promised something he can't deliver in a salary cap, which is why he keeps trying to force the players to strike with provocative take-backs from the bargaining agreement that expired more than a year ago.

NHL Players Association executive Bob Goodenow, a former player agent from Dearborn, Mich., is not without guilt here, either. Players must realize he works for them, not vice-versa. And he doesn't represent his former agent brethren at the bargaining table, either, though they all have much at stake.

There is plenty of room for compromise if negotiators check their egos at the door. Players must concede on a rookie salary cap, with negotiated incentive bonuses. Salary arbitration, which owners want to scrap because it's inflationary, should be kept -- but only for players who have been the league for five years. And they should accept free agency for players at age 28 instead of 30.

Bettman can sell the deal to owners who know they can lock up a player for 10 years, with a reasonable salary at the beginning of his career. Owners compromise by giving up their right to match any offers for free agents, allowing players who have earned it greater movement and the ability to cash in with big contracts near career's end.

It's not that difficult, but it will sure seem that way when Bettman holds a news conference Friday postponing the season.

Those who care for the game are hoping for a miracle. Then again, so were New York Rangers fans a few months ago.

* DOUBLE-TALK: Bettman is losing credibility with the players with his curious descriptions of the obvious: "Not letting players play is a lockout. Tying revenues to salaries is a salary cap."

Hartford Whalers captain Pat Verbeek said. "Bettman's the kind of guy who would say, 'It's not a wheel; it's a round thing that spins around.' "

* PROBERT FALLOUT: The Chicago Blackhawks suddenly are sounding awfully altruistic about their interest in Bob Probert. Somehow, giving Probert the help they say he never got in Detroit is more important than putting him in uniform.

That's about all they can say, of course, because it appears increasingly unlikely Probert will play anytime soon. The Hawks' curious absence of confidence about Probert's future in the league is underscored by their interest in Edmonton tough Louie DeBrusk, an alcoholic undergoing treatment for his problem.

* HATCHER REALITY: International Hockey League insiders say the Detroit Vipers really aren't that interested in paying Kevin Hatcher $1 million-plus for the season. They have gotten their PR mileage out of him, showing local hockey fans they're serious about putting a good product on the ice. Now they would be happy to seen him sign with Washington again so they don't have to pay him that big salary.

And don't take those Hatcher-for-Steve Yzerman rumors seriously. The Red Wings say the youth-oriented Caps wouldn't do it.

* TALK NOT CHEAP: For a guy who signed an agreement not to talk about his notorious departure from the New York Rangers, Mike Keenan is doing a lot of talking.

Keenan, who left the team in July, citing a breech of contract, signed two days later to become coach and general manager in St. Louis after weeks of speculation that he was coming to Detroit. His bitter feud with Rangers general manager Neil Smith is still chronicled in New York newspapers.

"Neil and I hardly talked at all during the playoffs," Keenan told the Post. "But I was prepared to stay in New York until he made it known he wanted me out. The Detroit rumor, I think, was being promoted from within the Rangers. And I never talked to St. Louis until the night before I got the job."

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