Goodenow, Bettman are key to compromise

Forget the Donald Trump fantasy.

You know, the one where The Donald, sitting in his boardroom, looks disapprovingly and annoyedly at Bob Goodenow and Gary Bettman and says, "You couldn't negotiate a one-way street with a map. You're both fired."

Then he turns to Carolyn and George and shrugs his shoulders. "I had no choice. They've already frittered away one season and look like they're headed for number two. Now where's my brush?"

Sorry, puck fans, it's not going to happen.

In spite of suggestions from almost every vantage point, including some players, that the National Hockey League's commissioner and the executive director of the National Hockey League Players Association should step back to ensure there will be a 2005-06 season, this is and will continue to be the Bob and Gary Show.

Last week, Toronto Maple Leafs forward Tie Domi, a player with close ties to both players and owners, suggested out loud what many have said secretly, that if there isn't significant progress in short order then perhaps Bettman and Goodenow should let others finish the job. That came on the heels of Hall of Famer and prominent agent Bobby Orr's sharp criticism of the two leaders.

But Lou Lamoriello, president, CEO and general manager of the New Jersey Devils, told ESPN.com there would be no dramatic changes in the structure of the negotiations or the personnel involved, even though no significant progress has been made since the season was canceled Feb. 16.

"This is the only way," said Lamoriello, who is one of the most influential men in the game and who has been part of the league's bargaining team since late January. "These are the two people that will and can get this done, and I believe they will."

Still, it seems inconceivable that almost 12 weeks after Bettman turned out the lights, the two sides are not appreciably closer to coming to an agreement. Yet sources familiar with the bargaining process told ESPN.com the two sides aren't even close to agreeing on a basic framework for a new deal.

That's contrary to the belief the two sides were crunching numbers within a model proposed by the players April 4 to see whether it was palatable for both sides. That proposal contained floating team salary caps, between a floor of $30 million and a ceiling of $50 million, based on last year's revenues of $2.1 billion. But more than a month later, the two sides have begun exploring "new concepts."

The owners still feel there is too great a gap between the floor and ceiling, and are also insistent on a punitive luxury tax somewhere in the middle. The players also are set on a revenue sharing plan that will assist small-market clubs.

And so the two sides once again search for that elusive common ground.

(We pause now for the requisite head-shaking disbelief, an almost reflex movement now for the game's remaining fans.)

Yet there remains more than a glimmer of optimism on both sides of the fence.

Before the season was canceled, each time the sides met -- which was infrequently -- they rushed to the media afterward to denounce the other side as morally wanton and economically vacuous. Since Feb. 16, the public battering has been almost nonexistent, a nod to the shared understanding of what is at stake.

The two sides have committed to meeting at least twice a week until a deal is done. They met in Toronto on Thursday and Friday and will meet again Tuesday in New York, after which Goodenow and Bettman will continue to talk while attending the final games at the world championship in Austria.

Even conspiracy theories are in short supply.

The players' association has scheduled a general meeting in Toronto for May 24-26, a meeting more than 200 players are expected to attend. In the absence of a deal or even some progress to report, it stands to reason Goodenow and the NHLPA bargaining committee will face an angry constituency. Many owners would enjoy seeing Goodenow's feet being brought to the fire, and earlier in the negotiations owners might have delayed talks just to see it happen. But instead of reveling in the din and discord in each other's camp, there appears to be a common understanding that saving the 2005-06 season means getting a deal done within days or weeks not months.

After all, everyone needs a reason to remain faithful -- sponsors, television partners, season ticket holders -- and they need that reason sooner rather than later.

On-ice changes need to be implemented. A plan for repairing the relationship with fans has to be designed and employed.

Teams will need time to adjust to the new economic system. More than 100 unrestricted free agents will need to be signed.

Then there is the draft. If a deal is done quickly, it's possible the league actually could hold a semitraditional event and use the media attention as a jumping-off point to relaunch the league.

"I can assure you there is no one on either side that does not appreciate the need for this to be resolved in a timely fashion," Lamoriello said. "I think that that's been the case all along. I don't think it has been anything other than that. The process, unfortunately, has gone the way it has."

That brings us back to the boardroom.

Regardless of public sentiment or internal whispers to the contrary, these two aren't going away. They're here for the long haul. Neither has backed off when it was assumed they might have (or should have). Both have earned at least grudging respect from the other side for their resolve (read: intransigence). Now it is time to turn that bulldog determination toward brokering a deal.

All along, the two have insisted that any acrimony between them has been exaggerated, that personality conflicts have never stood in the way of a deal.

Now it's time to prove it. Before time runs out.

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