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Owners rejection won't help their cause

The end is nigh. Or at least, the beginning of the end is nigh. But as
Gary Bettman rejects the NHLPA's sizeable offer, he'll
be rejecting a union that suddenly, finally, looks
ready to reclaim the public favor they once had a stranglehold on.

Thanks to the players' proposal, we have a much clearer picture as to
whether there will be an NHL or an End-HL this season. That's because the
NHLPA got sick of playing patsy in the public relations arena, pushing back
with a deal that puts Gary Bettman and his owner overlords dead in the
middle of a rock and hard place.

Said offer only can be classified as a stunner -- unless you're a player, in
which case it can only be classified in terms usually reserved for
ex-spouses and That Clod Who Stole Your Parking Space During Holiday
Shopping Season, Even Though Your Turning Signal Clearly Was On Before His.

For starters, look no further than the players' 24 percent salary
rollback, which is to a pro athlete as the abolition of heroin is to the
fashion industry. Twenty-four used to represent some players' favorite TV
show. Now they'll be unable to speak the words without twitching -- or
they'll skip past it, like hotels do between the 12th and "14th" floors --
and guys like Chris Gratton, Bryan McCabe and Chris Chelios will have to
change uniform numbers.

That ain't the half of it. The union's concessions on arbitration, entry
level and qualifying salaries, and, most important, to revenue-sharing,
amount to nothing less than a one-sided victory for the owners, while
allowing Goodenow to save his job in the process.

That isn't to say the owners should rush to accept Goodenow's terms as-is.
Remember, the union hasn't said their latest offer is their final one, only
that it should lay the groundwork for an agreement. They're right, but
they're right on the condition that they're willing to negotiate the numbers
that will drive the league toward competitive balance -- i.e, the luxury tax
limits and the level of penalties for breaching those limits.

But most, if not all of the other salary inflators the league was getting
hammered on have been adjusted in the owners' favor. Salary arbitration, in
many hockey insiders' minds the single-biggest inflator of payrolls, will
cease to be the one-sided stickup program it is now. In addition, teams will
be permitted to take their own players to arbitration in hopes of reducing
their salary. And the staggering rollback will give the owners an instant
windfall -- which, if they're truly the savvy businessmen they claim to be,
they'll invest in self-control classes before every free agent season
begins.

In one sense, the proposal is a stunning admission on Goodenow's part. With
it, the days of debating how much of a financial disaster the league is in
are done. No longer can nostrils be pinched because the name on the report
says Levitt or Forbes; what matters is that all the reports stink like an
outhouse at a burrito love-in. The point is now officially taken, the
message received.

However, the union's rebuttal will resonate just as loud with NHL fans.
Though the players have taken a PR whooping since the lockout began, this
proposal is bound to bring a chunk of public sentiment back in their favor.
Joe Season-Ticket Holder can't look at what the players have offered, turn
in the other direction and see owners who aren't willing to guarantee lower
ticket prices, then come away rooting for the likes of Bill Wirtz and
Wal-Mart Inc.

With its offer, the union has taken the argument the owners were using to
their advantage -- the idea that no one can be guaranteed a lucrative payday
for what they do -- and turned it against them. "Here's a mulligan for your
last decade of screw-ups," the players' proposal says, "and now we're even.
Now you take your business, with all the potential for success and failure
that goes along with any kind of business, and run it like a business.
Demonstrate the solidarity you've demonstrated the last few months, only do
it when agents are whispering sweet warnings in your ear. Ban multi-year
abominations in the same way you've banned the owners from talking publicly
about the lockout. Take your money away from where your mouth is."

Indeed, if players can't be guaranteed a lifelong living, why should owners
-- who started out with more money than players did in the first place -- get
anything similar? Are the owners like players, fighting for the rights of
future generations of their namesakes -- or are they out for themselves, as
they've been since the dawn of time?

Here's something else the NHL needs to consider: If the owners don't make
some effort to meet the players halfway, who's to say there will be future
generations of NHL owners at all? Sure, some polls have shown fans are
willing to watch replacement players, but if the league's image turns an
ugly hue of Union-Buster Yellow, there's no guarantee fan support will
remain.

That goes double if Jeremy Roenick's threats come to pass and an angry NHLPA
migrates to another league such as the WHA, Vol. 3. Let's face it, ticket
prices wouldn't go down in a Replacement Player NHL (RPNHL?) -- and it's hard
to imagine a rival league charging more money for tickets -- so there's
little doubt as to which outfit would be able to put on a better, more
affordable product. Advantage, players.

The NHLPA's offer has forced Bettman into two options of reply, neither of
which rational folk would consider ideal: (1) he can move off his demand for
a straight-up hard cap system and instead counter-propose compromise and a
quicker road to fiscal sanity than the route that takes him to the U.S.
Labor Board's door, or (2) he can throw up his hands, feign disgust, and
cement his legacy as The Man Who Killed Hockey.

But he won't be alone. If the fog of rhetoric lifts and the roadmap of the
next 12 months becomes wholly apparent, every owner who gave Bettman the
go-ahead to cancel the year will find his name permanently smeared, just as
every owner who spoke up in favor of compromise and conciliation will be
heralded for burning while the rest of Rome fiddled.

There's a famous line from The Big Trail, an old
John Wayne western, that Bettman and the owners would be wise to heed before
they discard the players' proposal and send their season to the shredder. It
goes like this:

"When a man begins to do a lot of talking about hanging, he'd
better make pretty sure as to who's going to decorate the end of the
rope."

Sage advice for a league that appears to be in love with its own noose.

E-mail Adam Proteau at aproteau@thehockeynews.com.

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