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ON HOCKEY

Players must capitulate

Owners seeking cost certainty

Yessir, that was one whopper of an offer the players laid at the feet of National Hockey League owners last week in Toronto.

Only one problem, guys: that was the offer that might -- and heavy emphasis here on might -- have enticed owners 3-5 years ago. Back in the day when the owners first extended the agreement of 1995, only to turn around almost immediately and lament it as an EZ Pass to Chapter 9 proceedings. The union's offer Thursday was dramatic but dated, because it adhered far too closely to the basic tenets of the CBA that died a quiet death just three months ago.

Truth is, the CBA's passing Sept. 15 wasn't all that quiet. Before the sun rised the next morn, no fewer than 30 club owners and their GMs toasted its death into the night and poured good whiskey over its tattered paper remains. Collectively, those 60 guys could have carried a season's worth of "Six Feet Under" episodes, right to the grave.

Remember, this was the same stout bunch of businessmen who claimed to have lost $1.8 billion over the last 10 years. So when Players Association boss Bob Goodenow Thursday handed over the prospect of his rank-and-file accepting a 24-percent payroll rollback, that presented the owners the possibility of trimming their damages to at least $1.358 billion for the next 10 years. Whoa! Given added rollbacks the players offered in the entry-level system, arbitration, and free agency qualification offers, the Lords of the Boards might be able to keep the carnage at a cool $1 billion through the year 2014.

Man, with those kinds of concessions, it's hard to believe the Bruins weren't on FleetStreet yesterday, burnishing their game for tomorrow night's matchup with the Flyers in Philly. Note to real hockey lovers: don't these lonely days of lockout make you miss those daily injury updates? Give me a Martin Lapointe hamstring update or give me death.

Owners and players hook up at the negotiating table again today in Toronto, and it's now up to the owners to return volley with a counterproposal. They could opt to come back with nothing, and only restate their position of the last 12-15 months, telling the players to pony up a salary cap in another proposal. But it's more likely the owners first will graciously decline the last offer -- noting again that the proposal at least acknowledged the league's fiscal crisis -- and then present the players with a stylized, more detailed but repackaged version of the cost certainty proposal they dropped on them early on in Son of Lockout.

No matter what kind of hedge trimming and loophole closing the players offer, the owners aren't going to accept it. They want a cap. They want what the National Football League and National Basketball Association have, or a version of it. Who better than an NHL player to understand copycat tactics? Heck, for the better part of a decade, nearly every guy in uniform has been forced to work under the clutch, grab, and trap tactics of 30 coaches who think as one (thy face is Jacques Lemaire). They did that with little objection and, for many, at great profit.

Now they're being asked to accept a wage-and-benefits package of 30 owners who think as one (thy face is Gary Bettman), and they're finding that almost as hard on the eyes as their game has been for the last 10 years. Fellas, trust me, your pain is felt here in the Hub of Hockey headquarters.

One way or the other, the owners will get what they want, and they might be able to get their cost certainty without calling it a salary cap. Is that going to happen today, tomorrow, or next week? Not a chance. It's still a very good bet that the NHL will remain dark for the full 2004-05 nonseason, and the real head-banging won't happen until next August or September. That's both a measure of the owners' resolve and, sadly, the failure of the players to see the forest for the trees. Have these guys never heard of the NFL or NBA?

It's over, but the players just don't get it. No shame in that. No blame in that. It's simply conditioning. Under the leadership of Goodenow, they've been riding the golden goose flat out, Smarty Jones style, for the better part of 10 years. It could take at least a year's worth of lost wages to convince them, including their leadership, that the golden goose is gone and their best deal is to shape a true partnership with the guys who've grown tired of stuffing the gold into that goose.

It's a good start -- although a late one -- that the players, by way of last week's offer, at least have acknowledged the depth of the dilemma. Now they've got to get their arms around this cap, cost-certainty, link-to-revenue thingy.

In a business that generates some $2.2 billion in revenues, the players must come to grips with accepting about 50 percent of the gross -- a drop from around 75 percent -- as their income, and then they have to be savvy enough to protect their upside. The deal they sign today, tomorrow, or next year has to keep them at that 50-percent payout, and if it's a $4 billion business in 10 years, then they've jumped their pay from $1.1 billion to $2 billion.

Sounds simple, doesn't it? But it's not. If it were, NFL players would have grasped that simple math before they fell asleep at the cost-certainty switch. The players should switch their focus from bucking the cap to making sure that their cap is even better than their NFL and NBA brothers. Be bold. Forge new ground. Sign up for 50 cents on the buck now, and hold on to it, in perpetuity.

There are some still very big trade items on the table for NHL players and owners. There is the cap. There is also the buyout provision, linked directly to the longstanding guaranteed contracts (which date to the Players Association's collusive agreement with owners back to the 1960s and '70s). And there is the whole unrestricted free agency issue, one form of which has most players unable to pack up and go until they are 31 years old.

When the deal gets done -- and the NHL becomes the third "capped" league in North America -- look for guaranteed contracts and all forms of free agency to be at the core of the tradeoffs in the final, gut-wrenching wrangling. Everything else is important, but by contrast, it's all so much window dressing.

And that's precisely what last week's offer from the Players Association was -- an eye-grabbing splash in the department store window here at the height of shopping season. Well, the owners ain't buyin' it. After shutting their league down twice in 10 years -- and let's not forget the players strike at the start of the '90s as a third job action -- they can't afford it.

Today won't come close to getting a deal done. But it will underscore, once again, that the owners will go forward only when they, like the players they employ, are also guaranteed a profit with each and every stroke of the pen. 

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