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Michael Farber
June 14, 2004
A labor stalemate shadows playoff glory
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June 14, 2004

Dark Days Ahead

A labor stalemate shadows playoff glory

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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� 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 I 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 Smith.

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.