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All roads may lead to impasse

Look closely, there's a dead end ahead

The first official casualty of the Bruins season will come Tuesday night when there is no one to fill the black and white sweaters for the annual scrimmage in Salem, N.H. The 2004-05 Bruins also won't be in Wilkes-Barre, Pa., for Friday night's exhibition opener.

Other than that, friends of Bruins Country, consult this space weekly for more riveting NHL labor/lockout updates. And head over to Hilton's Tent City for your extra pair of long johns.

The Lockout is upon us, and only four days after league commissioner Gary Bettman's Declaration of Disaster, the tone of this stalemate has been set: the sides are so polarized in their positions that there really is nothing to talk about, except for the disrespect each side has for the other side's position. Sounds like a divorce court reality series, doesn't it? Working title: "Spouses, Spite, and You Son of a . . ."

The stalemate appears headed in one of two directions:

1. Unlike last time, when 103 days of playing footsie in 1994-95 ended with league owners opening the doors with only a revised menu, the Lords of the Boards this time stick to their "cap only" approach. The players, true to their word, won't ratify a deal with the cap. In fairly short order (Jan. 1-15, '05?), that leads the NHL to declare impasse and move to open for business again with a self-imposed contract, cap included, that will still guarantee players the chance to be multimillionaires. The Players' Association heads to courts across North America in hopes of blocking the tactic, which in essence is the league's attempt to break the union.

Result: Assuming the courts don't rule the impasse invalid, not all of the 750 union members will pick up sticks and get back in the game, but the bet here is that one-third or one-half return. For the most part, they will be the younger, lower-compensated players, but a few bigger names are sure to come in, too. Great hockey? Not really. But enough to get the game off the ground again, once enough players are signed from the junior, college, and free agent ranks to fill rosters.

2. Sensing that the impasse/union-busting scenario is upon him, and the court will uphold the move, NHLPA boss Bob Goodenow informs the membership that there is no choice when it comes to "cost certainty" and their livelihood.

Result: Rather than have the league impose its deal, and render the union either moot or decertified, Goodenow and top lieutenant Ted Saskin return to the table and negotiate the best possible deal, cap included. If the owners are left to impose their deal, without standard collective bargaining, they also will negate guaranteed contracts (see NFL's working model). Goodenow and Saskin end up preserving the guaranteed deals, along with a radically revised form of arbitration, but must accept a hard cap of around $38 million per team.

None of the above could happen, of course, if US and Canadian courts don't support the league's impasse case. Lawyers on both sides have been scrutinizing that issue for months, and the owners' resolve witnessed on Wednesday, beyond question, reflected their ever-growing belief that they can win the day -- and their cap -- via the legal process.

That is by no means to say it's a fait accompli that the players will be outmaneuvered in this high-stakes card game. If the courts rule to the labor side, then owners and players remain stuck and the lockout could drag on through at least mid-season 2005-06.

The interim bet, though, is that the owners move in the next 10-12 weeks toward forcing the impasse scenario. If they can convince the players that management would win in court, and public sentiment on both sides remains unsympathetic to a group that averages $1.8 million per man, then that alone could bring the players to the reality that some hybrid of the NBA/NFL collective bargaining agreement is upon them.

Hardly the hockey we've all grown to know and love, is it? But no one should be surprised, because the clash has been foremost in everyone's mind the past three years. To the point, in fact, that the on-ice product has suffered badly while everyone was more focused on the numbers and economics of the business.

Now the sides don't have to figure out just the dollars and cents, they also have to reshape and revivify a sport that has been trapped and suffocated to death by defensive schemes and lesser-skilled players who are rolled onto the ice solely to carry out the defensive mission of the game plan.

How interesting that the union, in denouncing all cap proposals, repeatedly says it will not negotiate to the "lowest common denominator." Meanwhile, on oh so many nights, it's the lowest common denominator that plays out on the ice.

World-beater

Maybe there was nothing wrong with naming Vincent Lecavalier MVP of the World Cup, but a far better choice was Jumbo Joe Thornton. The Big Dish of Davos -- he arrived in the Swiss mountain resort town Friday with running mate Rick Nash -- picked up a pair of assists in both the semifinal and final games. Thornton also aided in shutting down Jaromir Jagr and the Czechs in the semis, then the Saku Koivu-Teemu Selanne line in the finals with the Finns. Once play resumes in Boston, a similarly committed Thornton finally could become a true elite-level franchise player. He moved his legs on every shift, and dug to the end, including a key neutral-zone breakup in the final seconds vs. the Finns . . . Howard Baldwin, ex- of the Whalers and Penguins, was in Toronto over the weekend, but not for the World Cup. Now in the movie biz, he was there for the city's annual film festival. "I'd say both businesses are equally crazy," said Baldwin. Officially, he had no comment on the report that he and investors have made an offer to buy the Anaheim Mighty Ducks, but it wasn't hard to read between lines of the script. "One day, sooner than later, I'd like to be back," said Baldwin, whose Whalers began in the WHA here in the Hub of Hockey. "Leaving under the circumstances in Pittsburgh [amid the bankruptcy procedure during Roger Marino's ownership] is not the way I want to go out of this game." . . . To clarify a point Bettman made Wednesday during his news conference: He told his 30 teams that they could release their building (i.e. dates) for up to 30 days, but he meant only through mid-October rather than November. In essence, he was telling them to release them out a few days, until Oct. 15, because the regular season wasn't scheduled to start anyway until the week of Oct. 10. If clubs/arenas are going to convert their dark dates into money by booking events, they will need at least 6-8 weeks of lead time, and even that might not be enough to bring in, just as an example, a dog or pony show . . . Thornton, in the IMG release, regarding his play with Davos: "It's going to be a fun experience. It's fun to be on the ice right now, and it's fun to be doing it with Rick . . . We'll send pictures." Sounds great. Bruins fans can paste 'em up next to the ones of Yodelin' Joe Juneau and Surfin' John Blue. In his debut with Davos Friday night, Thornton picked up two assists in a 3-2 win over Lugano . . . IMG has plans to put together a bunch of top-end NHLers (sans the logo) for a two- or three-week December tournament in Europe. It's somewhat of a copycat of the Wayne Gretzky All-Stars that made the Euro loop during the last lockout.

What I meant to say was . . .

When Steve Thomas said a few weeks ago that he might see the virtues in a salary cap, it led the veteran forward, no doubt after a pummeling in the union's back room, to issue a release stating that he was misinterpreted. The union would never accept a cap, said Thomas via the release. Well, there was Devils veteran John Madden in Thursday's Newark Star-Ledger, less than 24 hours after the start of the lockout, saying he might be OK with a cap, as long as it was something more realistic than the $31 million figure being bandied about since last October. Madden to the Ledger: "If it needs to have a cap, give it a cap, you know?" No surprise that Madden backed way off his comments in the following day's Bergen Record . . . Trevor Linden, the top player voice in negotiations, got roughed up last week when he appeared on a Vancouver radio station. A caller accused NHL players of being "a bunch of greedy, money-hungry pigs." The cool and collected Linden said he would offer no apology for the high salaries, because, by his eye, they are a measure of an industry that brings in some $2.1 billion in revenues . . . The Bruins, according to Messrs. Harry Sinden and Mike O'Connell, won't have any layoffs in their hockey operations department. However, the administrative/support staff has been assured employment only through the calendar year. As of the end of this week, the NHL front office will have laid off 50 percent of its staff -- more than 100 jobs . . . Bruins goalie Andrew Raycroft, still with no deal in place after his Rookie of the Year season, is part of the Original Stars Hockey League, a six-team, four-on-four circuit in Canada. Raycroft, who suited up for a Detroit squad, faced no fewer than 57 shots Friday night and was in for all goals in a 16-13 loss. According to OSHL boss Randy Gumbley, players will be paid strictly on a revenue-share basis (hey, that would work for NHL owners). Keep in mind, folks, there is the chance, when a new CBA is crafted, that NHL owners will look to trim roster size (from the current 20 perhaps to 16-17). There is still a sentiment, even among the league's old guard, to consider full-time four-on-four when the game comes back. That would easily cut the forward ranks from 12 to 9. Figure the blue liners to drop from 6 to 5 and, voila, that wipes out 120 NHLPA jobs right there. It's a reach, but right now, every aspect of the industry is being examined . . . Ex-Bruins coach Don Cherry, appearing in a promo gig at Gretzky's Toronto-based eatery last week, said he expects five or six franchises will fold if the lockout is protracted (another reason to force this to the courts sooner than later). Grapes said he figured Nashville and Florida would struggle to survive. Cherry was there to endorse Cold-FX, a remedy for the sniffles. Canadian drugmakers remain in dogged pursuit of what could be the greatest cure-all in the country: Trap-FX. Nothing to sneeze at, eh?

Kevin Paul Dupont's e-mail address is dupont@globe.com; material from personal interviews, wire services, other beat writers, and league and team sources was used in this report.

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