Publish date:

Dark Days Ahead A labor stalemate shadows playoff glory

In one of the most stirring of sports rituals, the Lightning on
Monday night took a spin around the St. Pete Times Forum with the
Stanley Cup. Think of it as Stanley's last waltz.

If recent NHL news has been grim--the rating for Game 3 of the
final on ABC was 1.4, the second lowest for any prime-time show
in the history of the major networks--the league's short-term
prospects are even bleaker. The World Cup, contested by national
teams laden with NHL stars, will end with a one-game final in
Toronto on Sept. 14, a last flicker of brilliance before the NHL
most likely goes dark. The collective bargaining agreement
between the league and the Players Association expires the next
day, and without a new deal training camps will not open as
scheduled on Sept. 16.

If the NHL locks out the players, as it did for 3 1/2 months at
the start of 1994-95, the league could well lose an entire
season. The 30 teams have paid $10 million each into a kitty to
help defray revenue losses; the players have set aside at least
$100 million. Before Game 1 of the Cup finals, commissioner Gary
Bettman (above, right) stressed the owners' resolve in their
efforts to establish a new economic framework for a league in
which 75% of gross revenue goes to player payrolls (compared with
64% in football, 63% in baseball and 55% in basketball). The
players, in turn, have stiffened their spines in their attempt to
retain something akin to the current free-market system, which
this spring produced two finalists with payrolls in or near the
bottom third of the league. If you doubt the resolve of the
players--and their union's often intractable boss, Bob Goodenow
(above, left)--remember the intensity on the faces of the Flames
and the Lightning as the playoffs' two-month battle of attrition
wore on.

Bettman and Goodenow have met in recent weeks, but in truth,
there is little to negotiate. This is a one-issue stare down, a
schism that is as much about philosophy as economics. The NHL,
which reported losses of $273 million in 2002-03, wants what it
calls "cost certainty" and a "partnership" with the players, a
new way of divvying up $2 billion in revenue. To the players, if
it walks like a salary cap and talks like a salary cap, it is a
salary cap. The union--which has expressed doubt about the NHL's
proclaimed losses--wants market forces to determine salaries,
although with arbitration rights and an entry-level contract
scale the current system isn't exactly straight out of Adam

The league and the players' association are like two Chinese men,
one speaking Mandarin, the other Cantonese. Until they come to an
understanding, the NHL will be lost in translation. --Michael