The National Hockey League is taking the negotiating process out from behind closed doors.
On Monday, it sent out a 109-page report to player agents and general managers detailing ownership's position as the lockout entered its fourth week.
But after reading the package -- which included clarifications of positions, the state of the league's finances, personal correspondence between NHL commissioner Gary Bettman and NHL Players Association executive director Bob Goodenow and a copy of the questionnaire used to compile the report -- player agent Ron Salcer said he found nothing in it that he didn't know.
"They're trying to shake the tree at every angle to find out how strong the branches are," said Salcer. "I hear what they're saying. I see what they're saying, but I don't agree with it because I also have a clear understanding of the other side."
NHL vice president Arthur Pincus said last night that there is "nothing nefarious" about the league's motives.
"We thought there was a lot of misinformation out there -- that we wanted to cap players' salaries and cut salaries -- that's not true," said Pincus, adding the information was put together after NHL vice president Brian Burke received several requests from agents.
"It's not something new. We've been very consistent in our message. But we did include some information that had been kept private because it didn't seem to be helping to keep it confidential. We hope it could be a key to help settle this."
Included in the information the league wanted to be sure the players understand:
* A guarantee that player salaries will not fall below their current levels, which the league says are 60 percent of revenues, and a commitment that salaries will be increased each year to reflect growth in league revenues.
* An offer to impose a requirement that each team spend a minimum on salaries, which will force lower-spending teams to spend greater amounts on their players.
* An offer that would ensure the "tax" on players salaries -- designed to help small-market clubs -- would automatically fall each year if it proves too much of a drag on salaries.
"There are two sides to everything," said Washington Capitals player representative Don Beaupre.
"They'll guarantee payrolls not to go down, but we have to agree to everything else -- no arbitration, two-way contracts, no guaranteed contracts, rookie salary caps and on and on. That's not in their package."
The NHL's move appears to circumvent Goodenow and the union negotiating committee, but Baltimore-based labor lawyer A. Samuel Cook of Venable, Baetjer and Howard said it is a legal tactic, "so long as it doesn't undermine the legal status of the collective bargaining agent, i.e. the union."
An employer, said Cook, can give any individual worker or his representative all the additional information he wants.
"And it's not union busting," said Earle K. Shawe, the managing partner of Shawe & Rosenthal, a local firm with a national reputation for defending employers. "If the owners were going out trying to hire full-time replacement players, that would be union busting."
In New York, Greg Tarpinian, the executive director of the Labor Research Association, said the NHL's move suggests it's on the defensive.
"They're trying to hurt the credibility of the NHL Players Association and influence the attitude presented by the press," said Tarpinian.
"Is it a good tactic? You can't look at it in isolation. They're trying to raise their leverage, but it could backfire by further alienating the players."
NHLPA president Mike Gartner said last night that there was nothing in the NHL's package that the union hadn't told the player representatives at a meeting in Toronto two weeks ago or that wouldn't be reviewed when the agents gather again there tomorrow.
"It's true all the agents weren't at the meeting," said Gartner, "and I've heard some comments from a few -- and I emphasize it's very few -- that they have some questions. So the league has been successful in making them question what's going on.
"But those who are questioning didn't come to our first meeting, though all were invited. Hopefully, everyone will be here [tomorrow] this time."
In the meantime, NHL players, eager to skate, are organizing their own exhibitions. Fans are anxious to get tickets.
"The phones have been ringing off the hook," said Gabe Macaluso, chief executive officer at Copps Coliseum, told The Canadian Press on Tuesday from Hamilton, Ontario, where the NHL Players Association plans to stage exhibitions Nov. 10 and 12.
The games will be broadcast in Canada, and charitable organizations will benefit.