Negotiations hatch confusion, not hope

The sign says "progress."

Turn it around and it says "dead end."

One voice says here are options, possibilities.

Another voice says this is pointless.

Four hours later and all we're left with after the first meetings between the National Hockey League and the NHL Players' Association in two months is another perplexing exercise in semantics.

Among the six separate models for averting labor Armageddon presented by the NHL Wednesday in New York, was one model that did not include a salary cap, said Bill Daly, the NHL's chief legal officer.

"Not all of the models recognize the necessary linkings between revenue and salary," Daly said. "I don't want to go into specifics, but obviously there are other elements" that would allow the league to meet its financial goals.

There are "a lot of different ways to skin this cat," Daly told reporters.

The league's point man on these negotiations said he was optimistic that the union had asked specific questions about the models to see "how they might play out in the real world."

Wrong, said NHLPA senior director Ted Saskin.

All of six of the proposals begin and end with a salary cap, and no matter how the league describes its proposals, league officials "remain fixated on a salary cap," Saskin told ESPN.com shortly before boarding a flight back to Toronto on Wednesday night.

As for asking for more details, Saskin said the more information they have, the more likely they might be to find a suitable alternative to the league's proposals.

For those keeping track at home, the doomsday clock on the 2004-05 season ticks down from 54 days beginning Thursday.

If it seems as though the two sides are discussing entirely different games, speaking entirely different languages, it's in part because they are. After all, at the heart of this battle royale is the language of change.

Not a question of whether things should change; they are. That is reality.

Two years ago, center Bobby Holik, coming off a 54-point season in New Jersey, was the subject of a frenzied bidding war that saw him land in Manhattan with a four-year, $45 million package.

Some weeks ago, Flyers captain Keith Primeau, coming off a dominant playoff season that saw him carry Philadelphia almost single-handedly to the Eastern Conference final, settled for a pay cut in agreeing to a four-year, $17 million package.

Overall, NHL salaries rose by a modest 2.5 percent between 2002-03 and last season.

The landscape is changing, shifting underfoot.

Mike Ricci took an almost 50 percent pay cut to go to Phoenix.

Mark Recchi went from $5 million last year to three years at $3 million to return to Pittsburgh.

The market still has its blips, of course.

Ed Belfour's whopper deal in Toronto is one, although the one that has most general managers quietly shaking their heads is the Craig Conroy bonanza in Los Angeles.

No small irony that the team that made a great show of opening its books for a public inspection (a stunt hotly disputed by the players' association) would continue to drive up the crucial middle-market salary scale by rewarding an eight-goal man with a four-year, $12.6 million package.

"We're not doing ourselves any favors" with contracts like that, one GM told ESPN.com.

But those contracts appear to be the exception, no longer the rule. And so the crucial question that remains is how to translate the realities of this new marketplace to a new agreement.

That's where one assumes the term "negotiation" is useful.

The players claim they took the first big step last fall by proposing a series of changes, including a 5 percent rollback on salaries, restrictions to entry-level salaries and a proposed luxury tax they claim would have slowed the escalation of salaries the owners say is crippling the game.

The NHL has pooh-poohed the overture, saying the players weren't willing to follow up with firm commitments.

Now the NHL has brought its own plans to the table and it's up to the PA to either return serve or serve again.

Still, anyone who suggests there is no urgency because there are 54 fat days between now and the end of the current CBA on Sept. 15, does not understand the precarious position of this game. These two combatants have positioned themselves for a classic show of brinkmanship.

The NHL has a $300 million "war chest," conjuring up an image of a great pirate's trunk in Gary Bettman's office with the $10 million each team has anted up to wait out the union, spilling out over the edges.

Players likewise have been squirreling away money and planning seasons in Switzerland and Russia and even the World Hockey Association. (Ah, the irony of diehard unionists playing under a salary cap in a third-rate league so they can hold to the principles of never having a salary cap in the world's best league.)

Each side seemingly confident the other will be the first to flinch, confident the other side has more to lose.

But neither can be sure, can it? Just where is the line in the sand on the other side of which the game is irrevocably changed? A half season lost? A full season? Until January 2006?

But just how long will it take fans in Atlanta or Nashville or Florida to care enough to come back?

Bettman insists the future of the NHL is a 30-team future. But he can't possibly know that. There is no future in Nashville, even if there's a $30 million to $35 million salary cap, if fewer than 10,000 people bother to show up whenever the game comes back to town.

Likewise in Atlanta and Florida, homes to young hockey teams that seem poised to finally break into the upper ranks of NHL teams.

What if the cost of this stoppage is a franchise, maybe more? How are the players stronger for that? Fewer jobs and lost salary that will never, never be recouped.

In spite of the rhetoric and the chest thumping, these negotiations do not exist in a vacuum.

World Cup of Hockey training camps begin in a month, setting the stage for what should be the most important showcasing of the sport since the Salt Lake City Olympics, a showcase for a brand-new season, a brand-new landscape.

Season ticket sales are on the rise in Nashville and Atlanta.

In Tampa Bay, where the glow from the Bolts' Stanley Cup win still lights up the harbor, season tickets are expected to be up about 30 percent better than last season.

In Buffalo and Pittsburgh and in practically every other NHL city, ticket prices have been slashed or frozen.

On the human side, staff are beginning to fall in many NHL cities and, ironically, perhaps even cruelly, at the league's offices in New York and Toronto, where it was announced Tuesday that at least half would be let go when the CBA ends, their futures very much in doubt.

Remember when nuclear war was still a real threat and there was much discussion about the effects of nuclear winter, the half-life of radiation, how long it might be before life returned to normal?

What will the half-life of this labor stoppage be?

It says here it will be longer, the effects more brutal than either side imagines. It says here it doesn't have to be this way.

Scott Burnside, a freelance writer based in Atlanta, is a frequent contributor to ESPN.com.