SAVING THE NHL SEASON : Iced Hockey Coming In From Cold

Bill Robertson, the Ducks’ publicity director who now has something to publicize, beamed and announced, “It’s like Christmas happened twice!”

Tony Tavares, the Ducks’ president who now has a real team to preside over, rocked back on his heels and mused, “It beats going to St. Louis.”

Ron Wilson, the Ducks’ coach who now must prepare 20 men during the next week to play 48 hockey games in 3 1/2 months, giddily declared, “This is fun. This is a challenge. It’s gonna be over before you know it, but it can be done. It’s like Dave King of Calgary said--'Give me 42 days and we’ll play doubleheaders.’ ”

Hockey is back, a mere 103 days after locking itself inside the penalty box, and all that was missing at the Ducks’ offices Wednesday were the champagne glasses and the confetti. There were hugs and handshakes and even the muckraking jackals of the sporting press were welcomed inside as if they were long-lost relatives at a family reunion.


Hockey is back, without replacement players, with a full guarantee of a postseason that will produce a league champion, without pending litigation, with Wayne Gretzky and Paul Kariya back in the forefront and without--praise be Lord Stanley--Gary Bettman and Bob Goodenow hogging all the nightly SportsCenter highlights.

Soon, we will be back to the business of final scores from around the Western Conference and away from the business of final, final, final, final, final contract proposals. (Harry Sinden, it’s safe to stop counting now.)

Hat tricks, instead of cap restrictions.

Skate arounds, rather than walk-aways.


Icing the puck, as opposed to icing the fans.

Sudden death, instead of a slow, agonizing twirl down the drain into a fractured wasteland of player-operated teams, belly-up NHL franchises and back-to-page-17 oblivion.

The world became a slightly better place Wednesday.

But, typical of hockey, nothing was accomplished without some bleeding and some broken bones.


The owners, who not only wanted the whole pie but also the tin, the oven, the delivery van and the bakery, will have to press on for at least the next four years without an idiot-proof salary cap, meaning that they will only have their common sense to guide them. Bettman was right; some franchises are in serious trouble.

The players, who wanted unrestricted free agency at 28, no rookie salary cap, no non-binding arbitration and every penny of back pay lost during the lockout, wound up with free agency at 32 (31 after 1997), an $825,000 rookie cap, three arbitration “walkaways” for the clubs every two years and pro-rated paychecks through what remains of the 1994-95 season.

Was it worth blowing out 468 regular-season games, breaching an ESPN broadcasting contract, throwing back new-found popularity across the United States and alienating the longtime loyalists north of the border in order to stagger across such a tattered finish line?

“You can always second-guess yourself,” Tavares said. “It’s not ideal for the players. It’s not ideal for management. But it’s the best both sides could manage under the circumstances.”


Circumstances that hurt, Tavares maintained, because they had to.

“The fact of the matter is: All labor disputes of this nature are resolved by pain and time,” Tavares said. “Pain is the great equalizer. Until both sides experience a good deal of pain, they are not motivated to get a deal done.

“Unfortunately, we’re not at the point yet where both sides have the trust to deal with each other without suffering a lot of pain.”

Tell Todd Ewen about it. A journeyman grinder who turns 29 in March and is coming off his most productive season, Ewen could have been poster boy for the NHLPA freedom fighters. His was the cause Goodenow was trumpeting at the bargaining table: reasonable free agency and improved compensation for the rank and file--not the Gretzkys and the Hulls, who are going to get theirs regardless of the system.


Wednesday, then, was “a trying day,” according to Ewen, plopping himself on a bench at a public ice rink in Anaheim, where he and 15 Duck teammates had just completed an informal two-hour workout.

“If you’re talking to a fan, who doesn’t really understand the issues, yeah, he’d say it’s fair for both sides. But I don’t think (the agreement) is open enough for the players who are near the end of their careers.

“A rookie salary cap frees up a lot of money. If you’re going to cap players at the beginning of their careers, you have to open it up for them at the end.”

Instead, Ewen said, the new contract applies clamps on both ends. Now that younger players will come cheaper, older--and more expensive--players will become more expendable.


Either that, or play for less pay.

“When you bring down rookie salaries a little, older players’ salaries are going to be halved at some point,” Ewen said. “When Paul Kariya gets $2 million, my own salary request is not going to sound so unreasonable. But if he’s capped, it pretty much drives my salary into the ground.”

When asked about the pro-rated salaries, Ewen winced.

“I know that’s part of the negotiating process,” he said, “but for me, personally, the only people that that lose anything in a lockout situation are the players.


“Players make most of their money during the regular season. Owners makes most of their money in the playoffs. Financially, this is going to be tough for the players.

“But, after nine years, I’ve found that the best attitude to take is just to be thankful you have another year.”

At this point in the history of professional hockey labor relations, Ewen has learned enough to take them one half year at a time.

More Mike Penner


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