Agents hear NHLPA's proposal at meeting

CHICAGO -- The NHL players union is answering the league's hard stance with one of its own, offering little hope for resolution of the lockout that threatens to wipe out the entire season.

The NHL Players' Association and 62 agents presented a unified front as they emerged from a six-hour informational session Wednesday, saying the union has presented a solid proposal and it's now up to the owners to come to the bargaining table.

If the owners refuse to budge, hockey won't be played "for a long, long time," agent Ritch Winter said.

"I guarantee the framework laid by the NHLPA will be what we will sign at one point," Winter said. "I can only hope the owners pay a little more attention, understand what it proposes, because it appears for the most part they do not. When they do, they'll understand the players as a group have given in a way that guarantees we can play hockey."

The lockout, in its 63rd day, was imposed by commissioner Gary Bettman after the collective bargaining agreement expired Sept. 15. The NHL and the players association haven't met since Sept. 9 and have no plans to return to the bargaining table.

The All-Star Game has already been canceled, and the Stanley Cup finals are in danger of being wiped out for the first time since 1919, when the series between Montreal and Seattle was stopped after five games because of a Spanish influenza epidemic.

"We've got real concerns that we're going to lose the season, there's no question," agent Don Baizley said. "Both sides remain resolute at this moment, so there is a real risk of losing the season, there's no question about that. But everybody hopes that can be avoided."

The union made the last proposal in September, a plan centered on a luxury tax instead of a salary cap. The NHL rejected it because the league says that won't achieve "cost certainty" -- a term the players say is tantamount to a salary cap.

A handful of players said last month they would be willing to play under a salary cap system or would return to the ice next season if the NHL decided to use replacement players if a deal wasn't reached.

But agents at the meeting Wednesday said they supported NHLPA executive director Bob Goodenow. He explained the union's proposal in detail to the agents and shared the union's correspondence with the league.

"There's no question that all the agents and the players are on the same page with Bob," agent Mark Gandler said. "Everybody wants the season to start. But by the same token, not on the terms that are proposed by the league."

Though there had been some talk that the NHLPA might present the league with a new proposal, Goodenow said there are no plans for that right now.

"We understand that there are certain teams that have got some difficulties, there's no question at all about that. And our proposal recognizes that," Goodenow said. "But what the league's asking from the players is a cap system. The league is asking for players to correct situations which the CBA is not really the fault of.

"We can't be the solutions to all of their ills. And it's really disappointing that Gary Bettman and the owners don't step up and take some of the responsibility for some of the problems they themselves have created," he said.

Playing the blame game isn't going to accomplish anything, said Bill Daly, the NHL's chief legal officer.

"This is a sport that has significant problems," Daly said. "It's not an issue of who created them, it's an issue of how to resolve the problems going forward. And that should be equally important to the union as it is to the league."

NHL management claims teams combined to lose $273 million in 2002-03 and $224 million last season. While Goodenow said the players have proposed more than $100 million in annual concessions, Bettman has said the offer would do little for owners.

That appears to leave the sides at an impasse. And with each passing day, the chances of saving the NHL season grow smaller.

"I'm not very optimistic at all," said Dallas Stars forward Bill Guerin, a member of the executive board. "But you never know. We're still very early into this whole lockout process. But I'm not optimistic."