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Bettman Sings Owners' Song on Road Show

November 26, 2002|Helene Elliott

Commissioner Gary Bettman has toured more North American cities than the Rolling Stones and done more interviews lately than even Al Gore, kicking off a public relations campaign to portray the NHL in a favorable light before the expiration of the labor agreement between the league and players.

At every stop he has made two points in nearly the same words: Owners need cost containment -- translation: a salary cap -- in the next agreement and will soldier through a lockout to get a system that will balance growth of salaries and revenues.

"Given a choice between short-term pain or bleeding to death over time, we will take the short-term pain," he said.

He also said he's ready to start talks with the NHL Players Assn., but added, "Their response is, they like the status quo and they're not interested in talking about changing right now."

They don't want the changes he wants, certainly. He has been told by owners a cap is a necessity and he has ammunition for a long fight, if needed. Each club was asked to contribute $10 million to a war chest.

Bob Goodenow, executive director of the NHLPA, has said little while Bettman is making his rounds. But in a recent interview at the union's Toronto office with The Times' Chris Foster, Goodenow said Bettman had made no proposal and his offer to talk "is just a ploy on Gary's part to deflect the issue.... If he has a proposal that he thinks will interest the players, he should bring it forward."

Goodenow also said he's hopeful a work stoppage will be averted, though he interpreted Bettman's recent remarks as throwing down the negotiating gauntlet. The current agreement, forged after a 104-day lockout cut the 1994-95 season to 48 games, expires Sept. 15, 2004.

"If it were a partnership/business negotiation, it would be a little bit different than a labor negotiation," Goodenow said. "But I think the league is historically, and appears from current comments, that they want it to be another labor negotiation. If that's the case, it will have a certain style and flavor to it that would set it apart from being a real business/partnership negotiation.... If there is a problem, if the owners' position is one I have heard about, then certainly there will be problems."

The main sticking point for Goodenow, whose constituents' average salary has climbed from $572,000 in 1993-94 to about $1.7 million this season, is a cap. A luxury tax was discussed during the 1994 talks but discarded; Major League Baseball has a tax, and the NFL and NBA have caps.

Knowing the word "cap" will trigger hostility, Bettman has used euphemisms such as "containment" or "cost certainty." To Goodenow, if it looks like a skunk and acts like a skunk, it's wise to have a clothespin handy.

"Part of what he said is a problem is [a] disparity in revenues, and revenue sharing can address that, although it doesn't appear his bosses can agree on a revenue-sharing program that will satisfy each other," Goodenow said.

"The revenues in the league have grown dramatically. They have had a problem, Gary has had a problem, managing the distribution of the growth and the revenue. If he has a disparity problem, but he has grown revenues to a large degree, then I think maybe there has been a mismanagement on how they distribute those revenues."

The current agreement limits unrestricted free agency until players are 31, with rare exceptions. Restricted or Group II free agency, in which the player's team can match outside offers and get compensation of up to five first-round draft picks, has been more restrictive than Goodenow anticipated.

"When we negotiated the collective agreement, we thought there would possibly be more activity in that area, in terms of offer sheets," Goodenow said. "But it hasn't materialized. By the same token, salaries have moved in a different way too. I guess I would say I misjudged, to a degree, the level of which there might have been some Group II offer sheets to players, but that's a historical perspective."

Here's another perspective: The last lockout was a momentum-killer for the NHL. And in a shaky economy, the multimillionaire players and billionaire owners will find little sympathy from fans or advertisers.

All involved should start working quietly toward a resolution. Baseball players and owners realized this summer they would have lost more in good will than they would have gained through a work stoppage, and NHL players and owners should take note.

Jokinen's No Joke

Five years and two teams after the Kings chose him third overall in the entry draft, Olli Jokinen is realizing his potential.

Heralded by King General Manager Dave Taylor as "very aggressive and very mature," Jokinen said on draft day that the Kings "need a big center and I'm ready. It's no problem to adjust."

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