Top brass not at NHL bargaining table

NHL players' union head Bob Goodenow and league commissioner Gary Bettman have been absent from the negotiating table, a source tells CBC

As the deal that would put NHL players back on the ice inches toward completion, the leaders for both the league and the players' association have been missing from the main negotiation table.

According to sources inside the talks, Bob Goodenow, the head of the players' union, and Gary Bettman, the NHL commissioner, have been absent from the main collective bargaining talks for the last month.

However, both men have been involved in the process by participating in small-group discussions – Goodenow with the players and Bettman with the owners. Delegates from those smaller meetings represent each side's point of view at the negotiation table.

NHLPA president Trevor Linden and union director Ted Saskin have been driving the negotiations on the behalf of the players for the past month.

There hasn't been much word from the owners about this process, but certain players have been grumbling about the union's leadership in recent weeks, culminating with a rant from Los Angeles Kings forward Sean Avery.

Avery blasted Goodenow in a story published in the Los Angeles Times Wednesday. Avery accused Goodenow of brainwashing players and leading them into a battle that yielded little results and ended up alienating fans.

"I am furious at Bob," Avery was quoted as saying. "Bob thought he was bigger than he was. Bob brainwashed players like me.

"We burned a year for nothing. We didn't win anything. We didn't prove anything. We didn't get anything. We wasted an entire season."

Avery also claimed most of the players were in the dark during negotiations and did not know the "real story."

Other players have also complained about the lack of information. Last October, during the lockout's first month, Pierre Dagenais of the Montreal Canadiens claimed that only a few players were communicating with Goodenow, while the rest of the membership wasn't "well informed" about the labour dispute.

Union spokesman Jonathan Weatherdon defended the union leadership in an email to CBC Sports Online, saying the players were given unprecedented access to information during negotiations.

Throughout most of the lockout, Goodenow, the NHLPA's executive director, stood steadfastly opposed to the idea of a salary cap – the most contentious issue during the labour dispute.

Owners claimed they were losing money and needed a cap to make the league financially viable. Players felt the league was exaggerating its losses. For months the two sides struggled to overcome this philosophical divide.

The union finally accepted a cap in a last-ditch effort to save the season, but the two sides couldn't agree on a salary ceiling and Bettman officially cancelled the 2004-05 season on Feb. 16.

The NHL reportedly wanted a $42.5 million US per team cap, while the NHL Players' Association wanted the salary ceiling set at $49 million.

The two sides have been meeting frequently over the past few months and are close to reaching an agreement on a labour deal. The new collective bargaining agreement will reportedly include a $34 million to $36 million salary cap.

"We underestimated how rich the owners were," Avery said. "Nobody thought they would be willing to burn a season."

"They won. They beat us."

Avery also apologized for putting hockey fans through a 10-month lockout that wiped out the season and the Stanley Cup playoffs.

"The saddest thing that happened to me during the lockout was the two or three times that fans asked me what was going on," he said. "I wished I could have apologized to them then. I apologize to them now.

"We owe the fans everything, we need to get them back, we need to cross our fingers that they will come back."

Avery isn't the only player to question union leadership's wisdom in recent weeks. Last month, New York Rangers star Jaromir Jagr said the union made a big mistake by fighting the salary cap.

Last week, Detroit Red Wings goaltender Manny Legace, a union representative, called the past year "a farce" and that they wasted a lot of money for nothing