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Friday, May 20, 2005
Sides won't discuss 'progress' made

By Scott Burnside
Special to ESPN.com

Only the National Hockey League and its players could meet for four straight days, 22 hours over the past two, claim success, and then have nothing to say about it.

Continuing a logic-defying path embarked upon long before the game became marginalized and its very existence imperiled, the league and its players did just that Friday evening.

After meeting for more than 14 hours Thursday, the longest session since the 2004-05 season was canceled, the sides met for almost eight hours Friday. The last two days' meetings included all of the major players on both sides of the bargaining fence, including commissioner Gary Bettman and NHLPA executive director Bob Goodenow, who met early Friday morning and then reconvened a full session mid-morning Friday.

When the dust settled Friday evening, NHL executive vice president and chief legal officer Bill Daly announced breathlessly via statement that "we had two long days of meetings in which the parties discussed and made progress on some of the key issues pertaining to a new economic system."

Daly's counterpart, NHLPA senior director Ted Saskin, was even more electric in his statement.

"While we made progress in some areas, there remain many issues to be addressed."

Last week Goodenow and Bettman canceled a flight to the world championships in Austria. This week the sides met for four straight days, including one marathon session and one surprise session, and that's it? That's all they can come up with to share with the world?

Those waiting for news from the Vatican got more out of medieval smoke signals than hockey fans get from the two warring sides in this dispute. Not that the league and its players have been anything but archaic in their handling of this entire mess. There are two explanations for the dropping of the cone of silence over the proceedings.

First, there is the distinct possibility there has in fact been little movement toward a deal in spite of the long hours and brain wattage committed this week.

The two sides began meeting in small groups, trying to sort out individual team finances and how they might be applied to a team-by-team salary cap. Using last year's revenues of $2.1 billion, the players on April 4 had offered up a system with salaries ranging from $30 million per team on the low end to $50 million per on the high end. The owners would like to see that gap significantly closed and with a lower bottom end. They would also like to introduce payroll taxes somewhere in the middle. By examining each team's financial situation, the two sides were hoping to agree on what constitutes revenue and find a formula that would allow salaries to increase as league revenues increase, without mitigating economic gains made by the owners with the implementation of a cap.

This was an entirely different process than the two sides engaged in last summer when the union insisted on a torturous team-by-team examination of ownership structure that had little to do with actual finances, league sources told ESPN.com.

Makes one wonder why the sides have waited until the eight-month anniversary of the lockout to explore the very nuts and bolts of team finances -- nuts and bolts that anyone with an opposable thumb could have predicted would have formed the framework of a new collective bargaining agreement. It might also explain why no one on either side of the bargaining table wants to admit publicly that they've essentially been forced to start from square one in their efforts to save the 2005-06 season from likewise pirouetting down the drain.

The second, and sadly more likely, possibility is that the sides are making actual progress but fail to understand that by failing to discuss it, they openly insult and further alienate the very people they need to embrace if the league is to resurrect itself.

Top player agents and team representatives said this week they believe there is a marked change in tenor surrounding these talks compared to mid-February, when negotiations fell apart in an ugly spate of name-calling and the NHL became the first pro sports league to lose an entire season to a labor dispute.

"I think they're going in the right direction. It took some time to get there," said agent Pat Brisson, whose clients include super-prospect Sidney Crosby, the consensus No. 1 overall pick in the (put off) 2005 draft.

Both sides have accepted that the new deal will be based on linkage of some kind, "and if we work all together, the league and the players, there's going to be rewards for both sides," Brisson said.

Both sides likewise seem to share the sense of urgency to get a deal done in the next month to six weeks. Season ticket-holders, sponsors and television networks including ESPN all wait with money in hand to see if the league can avoid repeating the same cartoon pratfall of Feb. 16.

There are rule changes to formalize. There are teams with only a handful of players under contract. There are more than 100 unrestricted free agents who must find homes. There is the draft and the possibility of a new playoff format to consider.

And finally there are the fans, the lowly fans, who need to be wooed and courted and sucked up to if they are to breathe life back into this moribund league. Which brings us to Friday's squandered opportunity.

If headway was made this week, even if it was modest, then surely the fans of the game who have stuck around this long deserved better than a couple of oblique references to progress and a promise to meet again next week.

If the owners and players are as committed to cutting a deal as they insist, then surely the time for Cold War secrecy is past. It would have done no harm to discuss the week's proceedings openly.

Why not share with fans what owners and players are doing to save the coming season, the challenges that they face?

Why not start now to create some buzz around the game?

Unless, of course, there's nothing to share.

Scott Burnside is a freelance writer based in Atlanta and is a frequent contributor to ESPN.com.