King Kaufman's Sports Daily

NHL owners and players started negotiating frantically just as the season was about to go down the drain. It was too late and they were too dumb, so down it went.

By Salon Staff

Published February 16, 2005 8:00PM (EST)

I thought my opinion of everyone involved in the NHL mess couldn't get any lower. It has.

NHL commissioner Gary Bettman announced at a press conference Wednesday that the 2004-05 season has been called off.

Even as frantic last-minute negotiations threatened to save the season that Bettman insisted couldn't be saved beyond last Friday, then beyond Monday, and now for sure really absolutely this is it and I mean it Wednesday, the owners and the Players Association were exploring new ways to avoid compromise. In the end, they succeeded.

For more than a year now, the owners have insisted that they wouldn't budge from their demand for "cost certainty," which means a hard salary cap tied to league revenues. The union has insisted it wouldn't even negotiate on the issue.

A September deadline passed with no movement and the owners locked out the players. The start of the season passed and both sides clung fast to their positions. The midpoint of the season came and went, the All-Star Game vanished, more than 800 of the 1,230 regular-season games were canceled, and still nothing but hard stares. It was a classic standoff, neither side wanting to blink.

Then, on Monday night, after the weekend beyond which Bettman had said a deal had to be in place in order to salvage the season, the owners said, "Ah, well, how about a salary cap that isn't tied to revenues? Say $40 million?"

And the players union said, "Ah, well, if the salary cap isn't tied to revenues, we'll negotiate on it. How about $52 million?"

The player proposal also included an escalating luxury tax that kicked in at $40 million and an exception that let teams surpass the cap three times in six years, with steep taxes if they did so. Both proposals included a 24 percent salary rollback the players had proposed in December.

And just like that, the impasse was over. To understand why this couldn't have been accomplished in July you'd have to be as dumb as those involved in the negotiations.

But now instead of glaring at each other over an unbridgeable philosophical chasm, the owners and players were simply haggling over money, a situation in which compromise and agreement is always possible. By Tuesday night the difference between the proposals had shrunk from $12 million to $6.5 million.

And they still didn't save the season!

You have to get up pretty early in the morning to screw things up more than this bunch has done.

The owners came back at the players' $52 million cap offer Tuesday with one of $42.5 million. That offer, in the form of a letter from Bettman to union chief Bob Goodenow, was couched as an ultimatum.

"This offer is not an invitation to begin negotiations -- it's too late for that," Bettman wrote. "This is our last effort to make a deal ... We have no more flexibility and there is no time for further negotiation." Bettman gave Goodenow until 11 a.m. EST to accept the offer. He'd already scheduled the 1 p.m. press conference at which he ultimately announced the official cancelation of the season.


Of course there was time for negotiation. Bettman had said the season had to start right away in order to play a bare-minimum 28-game schedule, then the full four-round, best-of-seven playoffs. But he knows there was room for flexibility.

Shrink the first round to best-of-five and you've saved four days. Shrink the second round to best-of-five and you've saved four more. It's not like reducing early-round playoff series from seven games to five would do more to tarnish the Stanley Cup than shrinking the season from 82 to 28 games would. And never mind the damage canceling the whole season does.

Goodenow responded to this warning not to negotiate by negotiating, offering a $49 million cap and the adjustment to the exception, plus a 10 percent limit on exceeding the cap. "We wish that the NHL had offered a 'no linkage' proposal before yesterday so that negotiations in that arena could have commenced sooner," Goodenow wrote to Bettman.

Yeah, and the union could have made its offer of an unlinked salary cap any old time, Bob. There's plenty of blame to go around.

The league quickly rejected the counteroffer, on the dubious grounds that "if every team spent to the $49 million level you have proposed, total player compensation would exceed what we spent last season," Bettman wrote in a letter to Goodenow. That would mean payroll would exceed 75 percent of revenue. The league had been shooting for 55 percent. "We cannot afford your proposal," Bettman wrote.

Goodenow called B.S. in a return letter, pointing out that, given the 24 percent rollback, only a few teams would be at the limit. "Clubs are spending significantly less than your team payroll limit number of $42.5 million," he wrote.

Put aside the $42.5 million limit. Factoring in the 24 percent rollback, only seven out of the 30 teams would have been over the union's proposed $49 million cap last year, according to the USA Today salary database. The Associated Press calculates that the average payroll last year would have been $33.95 million after the rollback.

Think about how ridiculous Bettman's argument about every team spending to the $49 million limit was. According to the USA Today database, after subtracting the 24 percent rollback, those top seven teams had an average payroll of $51.96 million last year. So they'd have had to trim about 20.7 million between them to get down to the $49 million limit.

But the other 23 teams, counting the rollback, had an average payroll of $28.2 million. It would have taken an average increase of $20.8 million for all of them to have bumped against the $49 million cap. That would have been a total increase of more than $478 million.

What Bettman was saying was that the league couldn't afford the union's $49 million cap offer because he believed that after fighting nearly to the death to limit payrolls, the league's 30 owners would have signed the agreement and then poured $457 million into pay increases.

The two sides let the season go down the toilet over a difference of $6.5 million per team for fewer than a quarter of the teams. They're even more stupid than I thought they were. And I didn't think anybody was more stupid than I thought they were.

Anyone with two synapses to rub together could have figured out that what you do is split the difference -- the midpoint was $45.75 million, Bob and Gary, in case you're reading this in your now copious free time -- sign a one-year deal, play the season, and work your asses off to finish the newly genuine negotiations in time to start next year on time. Or at the very least, they could have stopped the clock for up to eight days by shortening the first two rounds of playoffs to best-of-five.

Nobody had the brainpower to get it done.

Previous column: Jose Canseco's "Juiced"

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