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NHL remains optimistic regarding CBA

Hard numbers and cold reality were the order of the day on FleetStreet yesterday when one of the league's top operatives brought the media up to date on the stalled negotiations between NHL owners and players on a collective bargaining agreement.

 

Bill Daly, the league's executive vice president and chief legal officer, nonetheless remained optimistic that a deal could be struck before the current CBA expires Sept. 15, 2004.

"I wouldn't anticipate a deal getting done tomorrow," said Daly, asked if there were points of optimism that might avoid a lockout next September. "But there is still time."

A second point of optimism, Daly believes, is his depiction that much work already has been done, in terms of the league presenting to the Players Association its case for needed reform in the player salary structure.

According to Daly, the league informed the union in March 1999 that the CBA, implemented after a 103-day lockout in the fall of 1994, would have to be remodeled, salaries increasing at unsustainable levels compared with league revenues. The league's claim to the players, said Daly, came less than 24 months after the two sides extended the deal that was initially ratified in January 1995.

Asked the reasons for the rather abrupt about-face, Daly highlighted two events in the summer of '97 that sent salaries skyrocketing.

First, said Daly, there was an offer made to an entry-level player that essentially obliterated the "rookie cap" that was implemented in the 1994-95 CBA agreement. That deal, Daly confirmed, was signed by Joe Thornton here in Boston. He said the Bruins blew apart the entry-level system by offering the would-be franchise center rich, precedent-setting performance bonuses.

The other key event in '97, said Daly, was the Ranger offer to Colorado center Joe Sakic, worth $21 million over three years. A Group 2 (restricted) free agent, Sakic was boosted to an average salary of $7 million a year -- at a time when the NHL's highest-paid player was on the books at $5.5 million.

"Things went awry in the summer of '97," said Daly, his words linking the Bruins and Rangers as equal culprits in the game's runaway economics.

According to Daly, the two sides have been in a negotiations "timeout mode" since October, dating back to when the union proposed a 5 percent across-the-board salary cut as a way of addressing some of the owners' financial concerns. Late last month, said Daly, NHL commissioner Gary Bettman told union boss Bob Goodenow that he would like to restart negotiations.

The NHL, Daly confirmed, brings in annual revenues of some $2 billion, almost three-quarters of which ends up in the players' pockets. Based on those revenues, the league has told the players a payroll that averages some $31 million per team would be sustainable. Such cost certainty, Daly stressed, would not have to be in the form of an "NFL-style hard cap."

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