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Friday, August 31, 2012
Stop fighting battle of right or wrong

By Scott Burnside
ESPN.com

Donald Fehr and Gary Bettman
Donald Fehr and Gary Bettman need to set aside posturing and get busy brokering a deal.
In the end, it wasn't so much disheartening as predictable, the NHL and its players failing to even agree on who demanded labor discussions be halted on the eve of the Labor Day weekend.

And so a day that began with great anticipation that there might actually be traction that could lead to a timely end to labor talks ended instead with the kind of pessimism many have been expecting all along -- and, once again, reduced these complicated negotiations to the same tired, elemental question: Who's right and who's wrong?

Ho hum.

You can argue who owns the moral high ground in the now stalled talks between the NHL and the NHLPA until your toenails turn a nice shade of blue, but it is the ultimate moot point, a distinction that has no bearing whatsoever on however or, more importantly, whenever this labor dispute is resolved.

The owners own the teams -- hence their title -- so why shouldn't they want to make as much money as possible, even if their financial problems are almost all of their own making? They don't call it the charity of hockey, they call it the business of hockey, and after getting cost certainty with a salary cap last time around, the owners want something more this time.

After seven years of a system that saw the players receive 57 percent of hockey-related revenues, the owners have decided they need to reset the economic landscape. Reset means, of course, giving the players less, starting with the 2012-13 season.

If you were an owner, wouldn't you want that?

It remains a mystery why so many people seem surprised by the owners' tack.

Commissioner Gary Bettman quite accurately points out that 57 percent isn't etched in stone, it was negotiated into the current CBA and that deal is about to end in two weeks' time, and the last proposal saw the owners demanding the players back off to 46 percent of what would be a smaller hockey-related revenue pie.

The players, of course, have grown to love the 57 percent cut of the pie and why wouldn't they, given that revenues have grown to a record $3.3 billion? Seven years ago, the players' association looked like it had suffered a death blow when it fell apart at the seams and agreed to the salary cap it insisted it would never take -- and life has turned out pretty good for them.

Now, they're being asked to once again hand over a significant portion of their future earnings in large part because owners can't make their own system work.

How is that fair?

Well, it's not, of course, but where is it written anywhere that this is about fair?

Journalists and agents (who oddly enough oppose the league's cash grab because, well, it limits their ability to get their hands on as much of the players' money as possible) can squabble all they want about the hypocrisy of the owners' position, especially given a summer that has seen hundreds of millions of dollars committed to long-term contracts that the owners insist are ruining their game.

Guess what? Even if public opinion meant anything in this scenario -- and we're not sure it does at all -- the fact the owners will wear the black hat in this drama does not change the fact that they appear destined to get what they want, or at least a good portion of what they want.

The players might not like it one bit, but there seems to be at least a tacit acknowledgement that this is where we're ultimately headed.

Why else would you see veteran Shane Doan set a Sept. 15 deadline for signing a new deal somewhere? It's not because he thinks a new CBA is going to be more lucrative for players. In fact, one source told ESPN.com this week he's surprised Doan doesn't sign immediately in the event the two sides come to a deal before the current deal ends on Sept. 15.

Do any of the players who've signed in recent weeks have any reasonable expectation that they would have done better under a new CBA? Why else would Taylor Hall, Scott Hartnell, Wayne Simmonds, Kyle Turris or any of the others who have signed long-term deals do so if they didn't think whatever the new landscape looks like it, won't look as good as the current one?

Even if a chunk of those new salaries ends up being eaten by escrow, those players had to believe they were going to end up giving something back to the owners or they never would have signed those deals.

The players' first proposal -- which surprised some on the ownership side in that it did not request an abolishment of the salary cap and a replacement with a baseball-style revenue-sharing system -- offered a mechanism to artificially slow future growth through the first three years of a new deal.

The proposal didn't offer to reduce current player revenues but it did suggest a willingness to speak the owners' language.

The owners, for their part, have shown some willingness to phase in their plans for a new economic landscape with their last proposal, suggesting a salary cap not linked to revenues in the first three years, which would be set at $58 million, $60 million and $62 million, and then the final three years linked to revenues, with the expectation the cap would climb back to its current level.

The owners were hoping for further discussion along those lines Friday but it didn't happen that way, with Bettman insisting the players were stonewalling and didn't even bring a proposal to the table. Counterpart Donald Fehr insisted the players were ready to keep talking, even though they were rebuffed in discussions aimed at returning the players' percentage to 57 in the fourth year of their proposal.

We suspect one of two things will happen.

The players will decide that owning the moral high ground is something after all and, believing they have moved toward the middle ground, will pull back and hunker down for what would be the equivalent of a nuclear winter of inaction.

This is a group of players that, at this early juncture, looks to have considerably more resolve than the group that cannibalized itself early on in the fall of 2004 before the 2004-05 season was lost.

If they keep that resolve, then maybe they can outwait an ownership group that has shown it has the stomach for the unthinkable when it comes to tossing away an entire season.

That, for want of a better term, is the doomsday scenario.

The second and more likely option is that the two sides take a breather and go back at it, not because the players don't have the resolve to keep going but because to try to find the middle ground with the league is the most palatable of some unpalatable choices.

Our guess is that if the players are willing to take the six-year deal the owners want (the players have suggested a three-year pact with an option for a fourth), the NHL will move off how big the players' giveback has to be to start with this season -- let's say, moving from a $58 million cap to something in the mid-$60 million range and on from that point.

The owners have agreed that any revenues beyond a 10 percent increase from year to year would be split with the players 50-50. Maybe there's a way to restructure that, with more money going to the players at a lower threshold.

In spite of Friday's disappointing turn of events, it still seems there are lots of ways to get a deal done, if the will is there.

It wouldn't necessarily be right, but isn't it high time to move beyond that simple question?