Talks take step not backward, not forward

It may not have the excitement of the Rumba or the quaintness of the fox-trot but the National Hockey League and it's players unveiled a new dance number yesterday, the sidestep.

And given the torturous process that hammering out a new collective bargaining agreement in the face of a potentially crippling lockout in less than a month has become, one has to applaud the fact the two are dancing at all.

Top officials from the NHL and its players' association met for more than five hours Tuesday in a hotel near the Newark airport and not only did they agree to meet again twice next week in Ottawa (Aug. 25 and 26) and again two days the following week in Montreal (Aug. 31 and Sept. 1), the players' association promised they were working towards a new proposal which they expect to bring to the table sometime after the Aug. 25 meeting.

"At the appropriate time we will be making a proposal," NHLPA director Ted Saskin told reporters shortly after the meeting.

The NHL's executive vice president and chief legal officer Bill Daly agreed with Saskin's characterization of the day's events, that they had taken a sidestep away from earlier topics, but he suggested the timetable for discussion needs to be accelerated.

"My concern is we're less than 30 days out before the expiration of the collective agreement," Daly told ESPN.com. "We need to start making progress."

Daly said he hopes there are discussions, either formal or otherwise, every day between now and Sept. 15 when the agreement ends, at which point the owners are expected to lock out the players.

For those keeping score at home, the NHL's six proposals for a new economic landscape that had been the focus of discussions at the past two sessions were, in dance parlance, given the big dip Tuesday.
"They were not going to lead to an agreement," Saskin said.

"We read the media, we watch the media. They clearly had disparaged the proposals pretty openly so I suppose there were no surprises," Daly said of the across-the-board rejection of the plans.

Instead, at the union's behest, the two sides began a team-by-team assessment of the NHL marketplace.

They discussed marketing strategies and attendance and management styles from NHL city to city, discussing which markets had advantages over others and why and whether there might be an economic structure that would address those disparities or problems.

"So hopefully we can put together a proposal that addresses the issues in a meaningful way," Saskin said.

"I thought we were having useful discussion today," Saskin added. "I hope it's something they view as useful. We have to come to a common understanding of what the issues are."

If this sounds like going back to ABCs in the middle of a final exam discussion of Descartes or Kant, well, that's because it is.

But remember, these are two sides who met for four hours last month and couldn't agree on whether they'd been discussing a salary cap or not.
If going forward means first going sideways by breaking down the NHL marketplace team by team, then godspeed.

The cynics will see this as more posturing, a make-work project while the two still exist on polar opposite sides of the economic fence, the players refusing to accept anything that ties the league's revenues to salaries and the owners who are insistent on specific controls on salaries.

The cynics don't have to come up with an agreement. They don't, in short, have to save the game.

If there was one marked difference in the post-meeting spin it was in the hyperbole.

There were a couple of shots about the ill-fated six proposals (the NHL thought they were creative, the players' association thought they were pointless), but all in all less time was spent battering each other over ideological differences than in the past, less time spent complaining about whose fault it was.

Perhaps they're just tired of launching the same verbal missiles at each other, perhaps both sides realize the public has grown tired of the name-calling, perhaps both sides hear the clock ticking.

The union last presented the league with a plan back in October and it included a five-percent salary rollback the association said would have saved the league an estimated $65 million, a return of entry-level bonus and salary restrictions to 1994 levels that would have saved owners another $50-60 million and a luxury tax that would have meant a $200 million savings at the time.

The league, which has gathered a $300-million war chest in preparation for a lockout many believe will last at least half a season, perhaps more, feels a luxury tax system won't give them the absolute control over spending they need.

NHL teams lost almost $300 million in 2002-03 when salaries made up 75% of revenues.

Nonetheless, Daly said they're waiting for the union to make the next move.

The two sides did not get through discussing all of the NHL markets and next Wednesday's meeting will presumably follow the pattern established Tuesday with the union's next proposal following sometime after.

"Hopefully they'll come forward with something other than the status quo," Daly said.

Who knows what's next, maybe a 'step-forward' number.

That would be a novelty.

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