Dozens of NHL players gathered in a hotel conference room yesterday in Toronto for an update from Bob Goodenow, executive director of the players' association, on the seven-week-old owners' lockout that has cancelled 132 games, cost them three paychecks and threatens to put the 2004-05 season on hold.
Viewpoints were exchanged. Questions were asked. Concerns were addressed. Four hours later, the players emerged as united and as steadfast as ever in their opposition of a salary cap, Goodenow said. The owners' insistence upon implementing a cap is at the center of the dispute.
"There is absolutely no crack or divisiveness in our membership," Goodenow said on a conference call, referring to recent media reports quoting players who are unhappy with the union's unyielding position against a cap. "My hope is that at some point [NHL Commissioner] Gary [Bettman] will say let's talk about a deal that's fair for everyone. If not, Gary will cancel the season."
It's a likelihood that increases with each passing day. The previous collective bargaining agreement expired Sept. 15 and there have been no negotiating sessions between the players and owners since Sept. 9. No talks are scheduled, and because the league has permitted NHL arenas to schedule alternative events 45 days into the future, games have been called off through mid-December.
Bettman himself expressed pessimism on Monday, telling Canada-based sports network TSN in an exclusive interview that the union is "still denying that we have problems" and "the season is likely to slip away."
Seventy-four players reportedly attended the meeting, including player representatives from the majority of the league's 30 teams, union president Trevor Linden and other executive committee members, and about 40 interested players.
The Washington Capitals were not represented at the meeting, according to a union spokesman, who said Jeff Halpern had intended to be there but canceled at the last moment. Halpern, one of the Capitals' few veteran players, is playing for H.C. Ajoie in Switzerland. Washington has not had an elected player representative since Ken Klee signed as a free agent with the Toronto Maple Leafs prior to last season.
Goodenow did not go into detail about what was discussed yesterday, but he did say the group spent no time talking about a new proposal. Instead, Goodenow said the onus is on the league.
"Obviously, we're not pleased," he said. "We didn't want this to happen but the owners have made their stand. . . . Gary has said, 'This is not about compromise, this is my position, this is where I'm going to be.' "
In recent weeks, a growing number of lower-salaried players have questioned the union's stance. Ottawa's Rob Ray was quoted as saying he would cross the picket line if the NHL moves to use replacement players. Meantime, Calgary's Mike Commodore, Montreal's Pierre Dagenais, Brian Pothier of the Senators and Vancouver farmhand Nolan Baumgartner also broke ranks, saying they would accept a salary cap if it meant an end to the lockout.
"I'm very confident that all the guys are on board," Vincent Damphousse, vice president of the players' association, told the Canadian Press. "I really feel we have the full support to come up with a fair deal for us and the league."