NHL players union's proposal may ignite talks
BY TIM PANACCIO
Knight Ridder Newspapers
TORONTO - (KRT) - The look on the faces of Bill Guerin, Trevor Linden and Vincent Damphousse, among others, said it all.
This wasn't just a revised proposal from the NHL Players Association. It was a major, personal concession and, for them, it was devastating.
The union's executive committee had authorized an astounding 24 percent rollback in player salaries. Three weeks ago, that concession was 10 percent.
Yet in the days leading up to Thursday's meeting here with NHL commissioner Gary Bettman and his entourage, the players' executive committee swallowed hard to end the 87-day lockout with the stunning proposal.
"There was shock at first," Guerin said. "There was so much talk about the 10 percent."
Many players throughout the league are angry at the proposed 24 percent giveback.
Under the union's plan, the league will save $528 million on existing contracts over the next three years. Even if you don't believe the NHL when it says it lost more than $200 million in each of the last two seasons, there is little question the union proposal amounts to a significant savings.
In all, the 235-page plan could save the league $1.2 billion in six years.
"Once a rollback of this magnitude is recognized in the system, the owners' cost savings will be realized for years to come," said Bob Goodenow, the union's executive director.
Our take on it is this: The owners will reject the deal for two reasons. Foremost, there is no salary cap that would place a permanent drag on player costs. Second, even though top revenue-producers such as the Flyers like the union's idea of a luxury tax instead of a cap, the threshold on the tax is too high - $45 million.
Nevertheless, Bettman's committee should be able to find common ground in this proposal and begin to negotiate the next collective-bargaining agreement. If not, then critics will have been proven correct that the league's true intentions here are to break the union and lose an entire season.
Bettman said his group will make a counterproposal on Tuesday at his Canadian headquarters in Toronto.
Goodenow admitted there was much grumbling from his side over the proposed 24 percent giveback.
"The players gave it a lot of thought," he said. "Some players said, `Holy cow.' Maybe stronger words than that. And you know what? Players should be taken aback."
When Goodenow held a conference call on Thursday to inform player representatives of the new concessions, some of the reps angrily hung up on him. That says something.
Virtually every public opinion poll on the lockout supports the owners.
Yet what the players did is proof they're willing to sacrifice a significant chunk of their own change for the good of the game.
Flyers captain Keith Primeau, the most valuable member of last year's club, would give back $1.08 million in one season. Mind you, he's the Flyers' best player. The rollbacks would cost the Rangers' Jaromir Jagr $10.56 million over the life of his contract.
How do you think one of the game's best talents feels about that?
Goodenow's group addressed every major economic issue the NHL asked it to address in order to provide "systemic change" in how the game is run. Here are some highlights.
A savings of $400 million on entry-level contracts over six years and $285 million on Group II free agents over three years. Contracts to rookies would be capped at $850,000.
A luxury tax kicking in at 20 percent at $45 million; 50 percent on payrolls between $50 million and $60 million; and 60 percent on anything above $60 million. The tax would increase if clubs exceed the payroll thresholds in successive years.
If the league drops its demand for a salary cap, you can be certain Bettman will ask the union to lower the luxury-tax threshold to at least $40 million, if not lower. And if that happens, then Goodenow should comply.
Qualifying offers to restricted free agents would be scaled back so that players earning more than $1 million would not receive a raise.
The average salary would drop immediately from $1.8 million to $1.35 million.
Clubs would have salary-arbitration rights of their own. Teams could select one player each season and adjust his salary downward once during his career. The process could be repeated twice in any three-year period with other players.
Every one of these items are so-called "leverage issues" in the old agreement that worked against the owners and in favor of the players. Now the gap has closed.
Revenue-sharing ranging from $65 million to $190 million. The union offered a formula in which the top 10 revenue-producers would give money to the bottom 10, and the next 10 revenue-producers would contribute as well.
Guess what? The Flyers would fork over $6 million in the first year alone to the Nashvilles, Ottawas and Buffalos.
"There is significant ability for teams to adjust, control and modify player costs in this proposal," Goodenow said.
Bettman didn't want Goodenow to divulge specifics about the proposal. In fact, he said if Goodenow gave it to reporters, he would question his motives.
Goodenow responded by presenting a slide show to reporters and then placing the entire proposal on the union's Web site so that the public could see the enormity of the concessions the union is prepared to make.
"This is no grandstand ploy or PR move," Goodenow snapped. "This is serious negotiation. The league was in communications with (media) people. I felt it was important to tell people what the truth is" in the proposal.
So now it's back in the league's hands.
If Bettman comes back Tuesday demanding a salary cap as the only means to reduce league costs, then the season is history.
If, however, he says the proposal represents a framework to move forward without the cap, then there's an excellent chance there will be hockey next month.
Flyers general manager Bob Clarke says he supports some of the rules changes used in the AHL and thinks the NHL should adopt them.
"I'd like to see us go to the tag-up (offsides) rule," Clarke said. "It keeps the flow going. Less whistles, which I think is important."
He also supports goaltenders not handling the puck in a certain area.
"I think that has worked very well," he said. "It's allowed more forechecking. You rarely see a goalie now fire the puck around the boards. I think the no-touch icing is a good rule, too."
Clarke is less certain about widening the blue lines from one foot to two, which the AHL adopted to allow skaters more room to get onside for a breakaway pass.
"It's been OK," Clarke said. "I have not seen any real change there. There has been a couple of times maybe it worked for the Phantoms. If you use that wider blue line, then maybe the puck should be considered in the zone as soon as it hits the blue line and not when it goes across."
The right ticket
Someone on eBay was selling Dominik Hasek's speeding ticket from the 2002 Stanley Cup Finals. Bidding began at $1,000 and ended on Thursday without a single bid, according to the Ottawa Sun.
"This one-of-a-kind item up for bid is the issuing police officer's copy of the ticket that was issued to the Red Wings goalie," the eBay description read. "This copy has the officer's own personal notes on the back indicating Dominik's speed (65 m.p.h. in a 45 zone) and the distance that he was paced. This item is truly a one-of-a-kind item."
© 2004, The Philadelphia Inquirer.
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