Strategic silence continues in NHL's labor stalemate

Tuesday, October 12th 2004, 8:20 am
By: News On 6

(AP)_The NHL lockout enters Day 27 today and things are so quiet you could hear a puck drop.

Empty arenas and vacant training camps are only part of it. Neither the owners nor the players union have invited the other back to the bargaining table.

The silence is strategic, labor analysts say, and it goes beyond giving owners time to think about unsold tickets and players time to ponder life without hip checks and paychecks. It also could be a tactical move in case the NHL eventually declares talks at legal impasse and turns to replacement players.

Which some analysts say is the ultimate goal.

''My sense is that the current league strategy is to break the union,'' said Steven Ross, who teaches sports law and antitrust law at the University of Illinois College of Law.

''And the current union strategy is to not get broken.''

Part of a formal process detailed in U.S. labor law, impasse is a step the NHL has to take before wielding its ultimate weapon -- unilateral imposition of a new agreement that includes ''cost certainty'' and replacement players if current NHL players don't return.

Officially, the NHL plays down that likelihood.

''It is not an option that the National Hockey League is interested in pursuing at the current time,'' NHL chief negotiator Bill Daly has said.

But Monday, one owner broke ranks and talked about plans down the road.

''If we reach an impasse and it goes on for a year, we will attempt to bring in other players,'' Atlanta Thrashers owner Steve Belkin told the Boston Herald. ''That's not good for anyone. That's a last resort.

''But if that's the only alternative, say, a year from now, we'll probably proceed with doing that, and then hopefully start building up the caliber of the players over a period of time,'' said Belkin, who can expect to be fined for breaking NHL Commissioner Gary Bettman's gag rule.

To the union, those statements only confirmed what they already believed.

Attempting to impose a salary cap has been a big part of the owners' strategy, ''notwithstanding their feeble attempt to suggest it's not,'' said Ted Saskin, the union's chief negotiator. He called it a mistake to try and ''reintroduce hockey on a watered-down basis without the star players who would drive interest in the sport.''

The legal situation governing NHL talks is complicated by the fact that franchises operate in two countries. It gets even trickier because labor law is a federal matter in the United States and a provincial issue in Canada. That means different rules for teams in Quebec, Ontario, Alberta and British Columbia.

That doesn't seem to faze Bettman. ''I have lots of lawyers,'' he said Sept. 15 when the subject was raised.

Law professor Ross said no minimum time is required before the NHL can go to the National Labor Relations Board and declare impasse.

But, he added, the NHL should have at least one more negotiating session where they say ''Here is our last and final offer, and if you don't take that, then we impose.'''

At that point, however, union president Bob Goodenow could make a counteroffer that would convince the labor board negotiations were making progress.

''It's very easy to avoid impasse by moving yourself one centimeter closer to the other guy,'' Ross said.

Which, he added, may be one reason the NHL isn't eager to resume negotiations.

Paul Staudohar, a professor of business administration at CSU-Hayward, said the labor board plays a key role in the process and points to the 1994 dispute between baseball owners and players as evidence. When baseball owners attempted to impose a salary cap on striking players, the board sided with the union. A federal court agreed, and the owners had to back down.

Staudohar noted the NHL union filed an unfair labor practice charge with the labor board Sept. 23, complaining the league had not provided the names of the locked out players, as required. The matter was resolved, but the larger purpose of establishing a relationship with the NLRB was accomplished, said Staudohar, the author of ''Playing for Dollars -- Labor Relations and the Sports Business.''

For now, both sides deny being focused on the intricacies of impasse, saying the ball is simply in the other guy's court. For Stoudahor, the basketball comparison is apt.

''It reminds me a little bit of the old John Wooden routine,'' he said, referring to the legendary UCLA basketball coach. ''He never would call the first timeout. He would always wait for the other side. And inevitably they would.''