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Friday, June 25, 2004
Updated: June 28, 10:29 PM ET
Commish states league's case in CBA clash

By Scott Burnside
Special to ESPN.com

RALEIGH, N.C. -- So much rhetoric. So little negotiating.

The question facing the NHL, its players and, ultimately, its fans, is when -- or if -- the rhetoric morphs into action.

That process may have started Friday as commissioner Gary Bettman suggested there are "a hundred ways" to get to a system that includes 30 healthy NHL teams and "players making a great living."

"Is it a hard cap? Could be, there's nothing wrong with it. But it doesn't have to be," Bettman said during a wide-ranging 75-minute news conference the day before the NHL entry draft.

The union has said the league is insistent on a hard salary cap. Bettman denied this.

"All we've said is link salaries to revenues," he said.

"It's not about fault. We are where we are," Bettman said. "It's about the fix."

The problem is that in explaining how the league got to here (with 76 percent of $2.1 billion in revenues going towards salary) and in describing where it goes next, much of what Bettman says sounds like blame.

He described how he went to the NHLPA three years ago with a plan which he says wouldn't cost the players anything, and would have maintained a healthy status quo.

Then two years ago he went back to them and suggested a slightly less attractive deal.

Now, with the current collective bargaining agreement set to expire Sept. 15 and a lockout to follow, Bettman said the options are even less attractive.

"We'll need even more tools to repair the damage. It becomes tougher and tougher," he said. "A work stoppage doesn't help anyone."

The problem is that instead of re-opening an existing CBA, as Bettman proposed earlier, the owners now have the right, with the completion of the current agreement, to a brand new system.

"We have no interest in operating under the current system or anything that looks like the current system," Bettman said. "That's just our reality."

Bettman and his counterpart, NHLPA president Bob Goodenow, are scheduled to have dinner and take in a ballgame next week, with bargaining sessions scheduled later in July following a players' association meeting in Europe.

But there seems a missing sense of urgency.

"It's not about locking ourselves in a room," Bettman insisted. "There's a fundamental disagreement. The union contends that the current system is fine. And that is something I don't think is anywhere close to being realistic."

Actually that's not entirely true. Earlier this spring -- in one of the ongoing volley of claims and denials that have marked the negotiations thus far -- the players insisted they had offered salary concessions and a luxury tax that would have seen owners recoup $200 million.

That proposal was "flawed in many respects," Bettman said..

Bettman reiterated the oft-told story of how the league continues to lose money at a staggering rate -- last year's losses totaled $273 million overall with 19 teams in the red. This year, the losses were smaller in part due to a stronger Canadian dollar, but 20 teams still lost money, he said.

"We've lost too much money for too long and that's what's got to be fixed," Bettman said.

What now?

For strarters, Bettman said the 2004-05 schedule will be released -- as always -- after the Major League Baseball All-Star Game.

Even if the NHL doesn't start on time, Bettman said NHL research and feedback from fans indicates the most important goal is to see that the game's problems are corrected.

"I view it as 'we've got to make the right deal. What is the right deal?" he said.

There has long existed a belief that the owners will hold fast to a $31 million salary cap per team. But Bettman said that wasn't the league's position, that the $31 million was the mathematical outcome of a proposal that, using last year's revenue figures, would see owners earn a $5 million profit with players' salaries tied to revenues beyond that.

"The union says they want a free market. Well, they don't have a free market now. They've never had a free market," Bettman said noting that 25 teams had either frozen or lowered ticket prices since the end of the season.

Scott Burnside is an Atlanta-based freelancer and a frequent contributor to ESPN.com