NHL Commissioner Gary Bettman had a curious reply when asked why he and Bob Goodenow, head of the players association, hadn't talked between Wednesday and a session scheduled for Monday in Toronto.
"Bob Goodenow told me he had to be in Las Vegas over the weekend and wasn't available to meet," Bettman said.
Sounded like Goodenow was on a gambling junket or attending a Flying Elvises convention. Hardly. He was finishing a cross-continent tour of training camps, where he gave a combination pep talk-seminar about the tedious--and so far fruitless--collective bargaining.
Here are the key issues that must be agreed upon by Saturday, or Bettman will order a delay in starting the season:
--Who helps subsidize the small-market teams. The NHL's proposal focuses on player payrolls with levies against teams that exceed a predetermined figure. The players want to raise money with a 5% levy on clubs' revenues.
--Salary cap. Bettman prefers to call it "a relationship between salaries and revenues," but whatever name he gives it, players don't want it. Among the NHL's proposals is a plan in which salaries would be a fixed percentage of clubs' revenues, with that percentage to be negotiated. Players say clubs will use creative accounting to hide revenues, which would make their gross revenues seem lower and thus keep salaries lower.
--Arbitration. The NHL wants to eliminate it, saying that its unpredictable nature ruins budgets. Players, who went on strike in 1992 to get it, want to keep it. They are pushing for a system like baseball's, in which an independent arbitrator would choose either the club's figure or the player's.
--Free agency. The league proposes a limit on the number of free agents teams can sign and can lose and gives them the right to match offers to players who become free agents. The players would eliminate equalization payments to teams that lose free agents and eliminate teams' right to match offers. They would also redefine the current three-group system.
--Rookie salary caps. The NHL's plan would control salaries of players in their first few years through a cap, salary scale or pool. Bettman said exceptions could be made in isolated cases. Players are probably less united on this than other issues, but Goodenow says a rookie cap "is not in the cards."
--Game rosters. The league would shrink them to 17 skaters plus two goalies, from 18 and two, and limit clubs to carrying 22 players. Players want to keep rosters at 18 and two and impose no limits on the number of players with a team.
Bettman, asked about the resumption of talks. "On money . . . um, Monday," he said.
Fans and coaches were puzzled when players began exchanging union solidarity handshakes before exhibitions Thursday. When the Rangers and Kings formed the handshake lines usually seen at the end of playoff series, some New Yorkers in the crowd thought the Kings were congratulating the Rangers for their Stanley Cup victory last spring. One suggested the Rangers had already eliminated the Kings from postseason play.
Not everyone approved of the practice, especially after the Maple Leafs and Canadiens battled.
"It was a surprise to me," Maple Leaf Coach Pat Burns said. "I started across the ice and Patrick Roy stuck out his hand. I didn't want any part of it."
NHL referees and linesmen are wearing jerseys that have only their numbers on the back, not their names. It affords them some anonymity, but it's no fun to yell, "Hey, 57, you're a bum."
The day before Bob Gutkowski resigned as president of Madison Square Garden, he had nearly worked out terms of a new contract with holdout center Mark Messier.
Gutkowski's departure, expected because of his feuds with Chuck Dolan of the new ITT-Cablevision ownership group, has delayed an agreement, although new Garden interim President Dave Checketts said signing Messier is his top priority.
Messier's agent--his father, Doug--said he was told talks would have to start over, but Ranger General Manager Neil Smith said that's not true.
"We're just going to carry on from where we've been," Smith said. "I think it will be resolved before the season starts."
Should the season start on time, Messier's teammates don't want to start without him. Defenseman Brian Leetch is said to be considering skipping the Rangers' Stanley Cup banner-raising ceremony at the Garden, set for Oct. 3.
"That banner should not go up without him," Leetch said. "They should just keep moving that back until he's here. There is no reason for that banner to go up without him there."
The Mike Keenan era began in St. Louis on Saturday. The end of the Brett Hull era will soon follow.
The Blues are trying to trade Hull. The Kings wisely refused to give them Rob Blake for Hull during the summer and held firm when the Blues tried again during training camp. The Rangers don't want him either, saying he has a poor work ethic.
Now, the Blues are hoping the Blackhawks will like the idea of a second-generation Hull in their second-generation stadium in Chicago. No word on whom the Blues want in return.
Buffalo's Dominik Hasek, who left camp in a contract dispute, said he would be satisfied as the league's third-highest-paid goalie. Who wouldn't be, after only one good season to his credit? Hasek's 1.95 goals-against average and .930 save percentage were the NHL's best, but he now wants to jump from $600,000 to $2 million-$3 million. . . . The Penguins, who are paying Mario Lemieux $3.5 million this season despite his inactivity, might pare their payroll by trading defenseman Larry Murphy and his $1.26-million salary. . . . Vancouver defenseman Gerald Diduck is still recovering from off-season surgery and won't be back until November.