NHL puts season in limbo

NEW YORK HOCKEY — NEW YORK -- The NHL postponed the start of its season indefinitely yesterday and moved into a standoff with its players union.

That situation became apparent when NHL commissioner Gary Bettman rejected the NHL Players Association's latest proposal as not only unacceptable but "a step backwards."


Bettman said the board of governors, assembled on a dais in the Princess Ballroom at the New York Sheraton, was unanimous in its decision not to open the season without a collective bargaining agreement. The owners had postponed the start of the season from Oct. 1 to Saturday in hopes of reaching an agreement.

Saying the union's latest proposal -- for a 7 percent tax on salaries and a 3 percent tax on gate receipts designed to raise a pTC $20 million pool to help small-market teams -- showed "there was no meaningful progress" and that the union's proposal was neither comprehensive nor demonstrative of any significant movement to address the owners' concerns, Bettman further angered the NHLPA.


"In fact," said Bettman, "the board was really baffled by the union's course of conduct over the last 10 days, given their inexplicable delays in meeting."

Those words managed to bring the NHL and NHLPA's negotiations to a stop and put a full 84-game season in jeopardy.

"Judging by today's unfortunate decision to reject our compromise proposal and to continue the lockout, it's apparent the NHL is not interested in the fans, the game or small markets," said NHLPA executive Bob Goodenow via conference call from NHLPA headquarters in Toronto. "They are committed only to a fight with the players.

"As long as the owners are demanding a tax that is a virtual salary cap, we have nothing to talk about."

Goodenow added that there "is not much hope" for a quick or early settlement and that while he is not going to predict the length of the lockout of the players, he added, "It could go on for a month or a year."

The NHL has proposed a graduated salary tax plan that would penalize teams up to 1.22 times their payrolls for exceeding the league's average team payroll.

The players say the payroll tax is so punitive that it would act as a cap.

Yesterday, the owners were not exactly denying that.


"We can never stop the overspending on our own," said Washington Capitals owner Abe Pollin, who was chairman of the NBA's 1983 labor committee that created that sport's salary cap structure. "In the NBA, we offered the players 53 percent of our profits. The average salary then was $250,000. Now it's $1.6 million. How have the players suffered? They haven't, and the owners have done well.

"But we can't even get the NHL players to talk to us about a salary cap. It's not a dirty word. We can't stop the [upward salary spiral] by ourselves, because there is more than one someone out there who will spend the money even if you don't. I've been in this business [sports] for 30 years and it's been happening all the time. . . . Until you cap salaries, it's going to continue."

Capitals president Dick Patrick called the owners' plan one of "behavior modification," not unlike the experiment involving Pavlov's dog.

Every time an owners overspends, he gets a financial shock.

When the players argue the shock will be so great that it will act as a cap and thereby prevent any revenues from being shared, Patrick argues that if the overspending on salaries is controlled, "the system will correct itself and you eventually won't need a pool of money for smaller markets."

The owners are united in this. Yesterday, they sat on straight-backed chairs and bit a bitter pill. It is the same pill on which the players are gagging.


The owners, apparently, will have a salary cap, even if it costs them a major portion of this season and every bit of popularity the sport gained during last season's drive to the Stanley Cup.

The players have only two options: swallow the cap or continue to be unpaid and locked out.

"There is no magic in this business," said Philadelphia Flyers owner Ed Snider. "In some cases player payroll is more than the entire revenue of the club. It's wild. How do you live on that?

"If it keeps up, Winnipeg, Hartford, Washington -- a few of those clubs -- will cease to exist.

"The players say they want salaries set by the free-market system. I'd love to live with the free-market system. In a free-market system, you don't have arbitration. You hire and fire as you see fit. You don't have a union. You don't have nothing. If they're willing to let the free market settle all the issues, I'm for it, but I don't see them agreeing to that."

While Bettman and Goodenow said they ended their personal conversation yesterday by saying they will keep the lines of communication open, neither appeared about to take the first step toward resuming talks.


"When Bob is ready to resume, I'm open to getting down to business," said Bettman.

But he didn't say he'd call for a date.

"There has to be a reason to talk," said Goodenow.