The game is over. The players have lost.
No amount of posturing or hand-wringing on the part of NHLPA executive director Bob Goodenow and his minions will resonate any longer with the league, the fans or the countless people who have temporarily forsaken their livelihoods in the service of the players' greed. Those days have come and gone.
Mark my words, the NHLPA passed on the best offer they'll ever receive in this negotiation. They will eventually settle for a salary cap and they'll be forced to live with it for many years. And many of the players are cool with that.
The players simply aren't holding any cards. The NHL is no longer beholden to the NHL players we know and love, because there is no contract. The league can now do whatever it wants. If no new collective bargaining agreement is reached, nothing at all is preventing the league from using replacement players next season.
And believe me, next season will start on time, with or without the NHLPA on board.
Despite what Goodenow and some of the higher profile players would tell you, there is significant angst and unrest among the middle and lower tiers of NHL players, especially among those players currently plying their craft in the minor leagues.
Many have spoken off the record of their desire for a union vote on a salary cap. Most have said they would support a cap to get back on the ice. And most believe that a majority of their fellow players would also accept a cap. Those minor leaguers who are just a hair's breadth away from making it to the show are especially anxious to get this thing resolved, once and for all. Otherwise, they reason, they may miss their chance.
Of course, those players have no power among the NHLPA elite. But they are illustrative of a ground swell of support to get a deal done, and sometimes a surging tide coming from the nether deeps of the ocean can influence how the waves make landfall.
This is not to suggest that the owners aren't at fault; of course they are. Their greed and their blind devotion to Gary Bettman begs reason. This is a bed they made; they'll have to sleep in it eventually. But they hold serve. They know the players have been backed into a corner, and this has steeled their resolve to institute a salary cap. A hard cap. And they'll eventually get it.
In a way, it's surprising that the owners haven't bitten on the offer by GamePlan LLC and Bain Capital to buy the NHL for a figure in excess of $3 billion. The rhetoric that we've heard over the past year from the owners seemed to suggest that many were chomping at the bit to get out, to cut their losses while they still had a dollar or two in their checkbooks.
Now, they are thumbing their collective nose at the offer. Hmmm. If they were so anxious to get out from under the cumbersome payrolls that they contend have brought us to this point, why aren't they grabbing at this parachute?
The players' feeble threat to form their own league is laughable and is falling on the deaf ears of the owners and the fans. This collection of broken-toothed on-ice warriors could never make their own league work. They know how to play hockey, of course, but they haven't the first idea about how to run a business. And like it or not, hockey is a business.
I know what's eventually going to happen: The players will agree to a salary cap, and they will get back on the ice in time for the 2005-06 season.
Oh sure, they'll get a minor concession or two from the league, but that will be it. They simply have too much to lose by sticking to their guns, and they've played this out as far as they can. They know that any further disruption of hockey as we know it will mean the end of whatever fan support they currently enjoy, and they'll trudge back to the rinks, bowed but not completely broken. And the game will go on.
Let's hope this scenario plays out sooner rather than later. All of us who love the NHL need the players to acknowledge that they are exceedingly well-paid to play a game that gives so much pleasure to so many. And eventually, they'll come to terms with this reality.