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Tuesday, July 19, 2005
Ratification won't come easily for players

By Scott Burnside
Special to ESPN.com

TORONTO -- Rebirth is never easy.

Ask any caterpillar. Ask any butterfly.

Wednesday afternoon, dozens of NHL players will enter a Toronto hotel ballroom, and regardless of how tanned and healthy they look, these players will enter with the look of the vanquished about them. How they emerge from that same ballroom after voting on a new collective bargaining agreement Thursday morning will say much about the future of the NHL as it begins an arduous journey back to relevance.

Much of the dialogue emanating from both camps in the wake of last Wednesday's tentative agreement between NHL owners and players has focused on the need to forge a new relationship between the two sides. Indeed, the twin vehicles expected to drive the NHL's revival are an improved product on the ice and an unprecedented partnership off the ice.

But talking about such a metamorphosis, a rebirth, is easy.

What faces NHL players now is no longer an abstract concept or empty words but the reality of forming a lasting partnership with the same group that days ago completed a rout at the bargaining table. These two days in Toronto will go a long way to determining whether these players believe such a partnership is workable or even desirable.

"You'd better have people working together, fostering relationships that never existed before," one veteran agent warned. "The relationship's poisonous now. You have people who despise each other."

Obviously, it's going to be difficult. You're basically just going to have to swallow that little pill, that pride pill, and go out and do it and bring people back into the circle. That's what it's going to take. It's going to take everybody working together. It's going to take the players going out into the community.
Brad Lukowich

Another agent and former player agreed: "There are going to be a lot of sour people on this deal."

Union executives "better have flak jackets on," said the agent, who predicted that the six-year deal will be ratified but that the vote may be as close as 400-300.

"Obviously, it's going to be difficult," said veteran defenseman Brad Lukowich, last seen at center ice at the St. Pete Times Forum in Tampa, Fla., with the Stanley Cup hoisted over his head. "You're basically just going to have to swallow that little pill, that pride pill, and go out and do it and bring people back into the circle. That's what it's going to take. It's going to take everybody working together. It's going to take the players going out into the community."

Traditionally, the players have never been shy about doing just that: visiting hospitals, schools, minor hockey events. It was their calling card before the lockout -- the good guys of professional sport. It had better be their calling card going forward.

"There are a lot of people out there who are bitter," Lukowich admitted.

But there's one thing fans sometimes forget when they look at players, said the native of Cranbrook, British Columbia.

"These 700 players, before they were players, they were fans of the game, too," Lukowich said.

It's true. And most players (unless of course they play in Boston or perhaps Chicago) have few issues with their general managers or owners.

Players in Calgary didn't go to war for 301 days with GM Darryl Sutter or Ken King and the rest of the Flames' ownership group. Nor did the Flyers watch an entire season scuttled because they have issues with GM Bob Clarke or owner Ed Snider. They went to war with NHL commissioner Gary Bettman and the gray, faceless institution known simply as "ownership."

Given that, it's going to be a lot more palatable going back to work for these GMs and their owners, and going out into the communities on their behalf, trying to repair a crumbling foundation in their cities.

"I don't think it's going to be a difficult task," veteran netminder Olaf Kolzig said. "There are 700 players. There's going to be some grumbling. There's going to be some questions that need to be answered. But the bottom line is we need to get the game back on track as opposed to playing the blame game. I'm excited to get going.

"This is a time to start promoting the game again and not dwell on what happened last year."

In the cities where the majority of players share this sentiment, the transition from the pummeled to the partners will be easier.

For others, however, the sting of the lockout will be more difficult to ease. For some players, the notion of a partnership will forever be alien. They will see the $39 million salary cap as a cap on their potential, and they will merely exist within the framework, collecting their paychecks.

"Guys just won't play as hard," one agent predicted. "You can't see it, but you're going to feel it, you're going to sense it.

"There has to be something that drives everybody. It should be winning."

But sometimes it's more than that, the notion that there is some bigger financial reward somewhere over the horizon.

"You never want the greyhound to catch that mechanical rabbit," the agent said. And in some ways, players have done just that. Players have given up 24 percent of existing salaries in an across-the-board rollback. They'll also see another 15 percent put into escrow to ensure player salaries remain within the 54 percent demanded by the owners for the coming season -- making a total potential decline in earnings of 39 percent. It is the kind of hit that becomes a built-in excuse for being distracted, the agent said.

If revenues decline (and this agent believes the estimated $1.7 billion to $1.8 billion in revenues this season's salary scale is based on is extremely generous), players will see their salaries continue to decline.

"Then you have people who just don't give a [crap]," the agent said. "Then you're just existing. You never want to just exist in pro sports.

"I don't tell our guys that it's going to be OK. I don't know it's going to be OK."

But it could be OK. And the key will be having fewer disenfranchised, bitter players leave Toronto than arrived here. It is a tall order.

"For sure, players and management need to get shoulder to shoulder and say we're done beating each other up and go and beat up basketball," the agent said.

So the challenge for NHLPA executive director Bob Goodenow, whose very job is in question during these meetings, and president Trevor Linden and the rest of the bargaining committee, is to bring home the message that this deal must be a starting point -- not an end point.

Where the game goes, so go the players. If the game grows, the players' salaries and indeed perhaps their role in the overall direction of the league will likewise grow. In the past, the two were diametrically opposed in many ways. As salaries grew over the past decade, the problems with the game also grew.

"That new paradigm is what's going to make the NHL more successful than it's ever been," former Atlanta Thrashers president Stan Kasten predicted.

The onus doesn't just lie with the players to suck it up and move on. Ownership will play a pivotal role in these important first months of the new CBA.

According to one agent, there is a common trait among all professional athletes.

"They hate to be embarrassed," the agent said. The league must make the terms of surrender as easy as possible.

Already, there is at least some evidence the league understands this. It took the better part of six days to work out an agreement on the post-ratification process, but ultimately the league moved off its schedule and moved its board of governors meeting from Thursday to Friday. Also, Bettman and top negotiator Bill Daly will come to Toronto to discuss the results of the players' vote Thursday.

A small concession to be sure. But there is, after all, nothing easy about rebirth.

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