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NHL PLAYERS STICK TOGETHER DESPITE REALITY

It was comforting to see Bob Goodenow hasn't changed much in the seven weeks since the National Hockey League began locking out its players. For a while there, it appeared his constituents were power skating toward the land of Humpty Dumpty, but along came the union chief to put them together again.

Predictably, the NHL Players' Association put on a united front Tuesday after Goodenow held meetings over two days in Toronto with player representatives from the 30 NHL teams. Basically, they reaffirmed their commitment to their cause, which is to say they were together in their irrational thinking.

Misguided they stand, and misguided they will fall.

Goodenow and the players can massage their message how they wish, so long as they understand the biggest wounds will be self-inflicted. The NHL will not resume without a massive overhaul of the salary structure. Players should consider themselves fortunate if this labor dispute costs them only one season because it could cost many more jobs if teams teetering near bankruptcy close their doors for good.

Nobody is saying the players should accept a hard salary cap and slink back to the ice, but they should at least face reality: The league is in trouble and the number of people who care outside NHL circles is dwindling by the day.

Goodenow can blame Commissioner Gary Bettman for the league's problems, and no doubt he would be in the majority. To his credit, Goodenow masterfully negotiated the collective bargaining agreement in 1994. He was so effective, the agreement so one-sided, that the problems today were inevitable. Now it must swing the other way.

Goodenow wants a free market in which teams could enforce their own salary cap by adhering to their budgets. It sounds sensible on the surface, but it's hardly realistic. Teams need to be competitive to fill their arenas. Good players are more expensive, which leads to escalating salaries.

You could ignore the perception of greed and admire the players' solidarity, but even that's not the case. The players' association wants it both ways. One day its members are emphasizing the sanctity of their jobs, the next they're stealing work from European players who need the money more. Their position has not been a unified matter of principle, but individual matters of convenience.

There were 236 hypocrites playing overseas by last count, which means nearly one-third of the NHL workforce would rather play for pennies elsewhere than make millions here.

Is that united?

For years, players have grumbled about Goodenow's commitment to star players who have earned more than $10 million while two-thirds pocketed less than the NHL average salary of $1.8 million. The median salary is $990,000, meaning half the players make less than that.

No wonder it seems every other day someone from the bottom of the pay scale questions Goodenow's tactics or wonders why he hasn't been more aggressive in negotiations with Bettman. Some have had the audacity to consider the possibility of salary caps that have worked in other leagues. Goodenow shoves them aside.

Goodenow has failed to see that players who are making the least money are often making the most sense. They understand that good money is available in a game in which both sides win.

Canadiens forward Pierre Dagenais suggested he would accept a salary cap last week before he was reeled in Tuesday. Rob Ray spoke up a few days ago. Andrew Ference, Mike Commodore and Brian Pothier have thrown in their two cents. Goodenow and Bettman haven't met since Sept. 9.

But at least the NHLPA is together.

e-mail: bgleason@buffnews.com

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