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The Cross-Ice Pass: A Glimmer of Hope?
By BRIAN PIKE, MOP Squad Sports Hockey Editor
Dec 7, 2004 - 3:15:00 PM

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Last week, the NHL Player's Association announced plans to submit a new proposal for a collective bargaining agreement which would solve the current labour difficulties the league has been having and end the lockout, now nearing it's three month anniversary.

The NHL accepted the player's invitation to a new negotiating session this week in Toronto, where the PA will outline it's proposal.

"Almost three months have passed since the players made their last proposal and we have yet to receive a counter offer from the league," NHLPA Executive Director Bob Goodenow said. "We have been working hard at other creative solutions and believe our new proposal will provide a basis to end the owners' lockout and resume NHL hockey."

The league, meanwhile, seems to be taking a public position of cautious optimism about what the players are likely to present.

"We are hopeful that the NHLPA's offer will be a meaningful effort to address the league's economic problems," NHL executive vice president Bill Daly said. "When we receive the proposal, we will evaluate it closely and respond appropriately."

This is old news. However, your esteemed hockey editor has finally gathered his thoughts on the subject.

I, and most people, I'm sure, am understandably skeptical that anything substantial will get done here. The PA's proposal won't go as far as the league wants the next CBA to go; that much can probably be taken as a given. Whether or not it becomes a starting point for negotiations is a bit up in the air at this point; it should, but then, we're dealing with a bunch of very stupid people here. Well, let me rephrase that: we're dealing with a lot of smart people that can't imagine a league-player's association relationship that isn't strictly adversarial, which really has its roots in hockey's past. Right up until Bob Goodenow became head of the Player's Union in 1992 the history of labour relations in the NHL is almost sickening: the mistreatment of players by owners, the attempts to form a proper union shot down, a union finally put in place but run by a totally immoral criminal who was in bed with the owners...but that's another article entirely.

Those involved in this lockout on both sides also seem to think that the bulk of hockey fans are idiots.

What'll be really interesting this week is watching the league's reaction to see just how stubborn they're going to continue to be during this process. If they reject the PA's proposal out of hand and things return to how they've been the last couple months, we know the league is operating under the premise that either the players will eventually crack as this season is cancelled and next season is put in jeopardy, or eventually they will get to the point where the league can declare an impasse, impose their CBA, and force the PA into a strike vote. Which would inevitably lead to messy court battles, replacement players, and a truly stomach-turning debacle the likes of which no pro sports league has ever seen. But I digress. This premise is extremely flawed, but not because of anything the PA can or will do; it's flawed because it's dependant on the idea that the fans will blindly put up with this sort of garbage until the league decides the time is right to return.

What do I think? I think that if the NHL cancels this season, then the league is in very, very serious trouble. If that happens they're in danger of falling off the sports map in some parts of the United States entirely, and once that happens nothing will revive the NHL in some markets. What happens in Pittsburgh if, by the time the Penguins come back, Mario Lemieux has had to retire because of age? None of the fans have seen a game in, say, two years, they've discovered they don't miss it that much, and with Mario gone, they don't see a good reason to go back. Carolina will have lost any lingering momentum from their Stanley Cup Final appearance in 2002, which may have been about the only thing that franchise had going for it. Nashville, Anaheim, and Phoenix will all be in trouble, and maybe even Washington, Atlanta and New Jersey, if the league is unlucky. Perhaps even more.

Of course, if the league reacts differently and says that this proposal isn't enough, but it is a start, well, that's different. But I wonder if the NHL realizes just how much they need to show even a little bit of progress this week? If there is none, it's not so much a public relations win for the players as it is a serious PR loss for the league. The players will trumpet the fact that they're trying to be flexible, trying to come up with something that works, while the league is being totally intractible and unwilling to negotiate, which is what they've been saying for months. If nothing happens when the league and union meet this week, any doubts regarding that statement will be gone; unless the league makes some effort here, everything the PA has said about not having a negotiating partner in this mess will be proven to be true.

And we, the people, the fans, will not be happy. Especially if it means this season will be cancelled. And when we're unhappy, the league had better start paying attention.

Information from the Associated Press was used in this column.

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