NHL Season Appears Over As Deadline Looms

Friday, February 11th 2005, 8:48 am

By: News On 6

NEW YORK (AP) _ The only thing the NHL and the players' association are close to is stamping out a season that never started.

No talks, no deals, and with the clock ticking on a weekend deadline, virtually no chance of playing hockey.

That was the word from both sides after yet another failed negotiating session Thursday in Toronto.

``I can tell you unequivocally and without a doubt that we are done,'' NHL chief legal officer Bill Daly told The Associated Press on Thursday night.

``Without a change in position by the union, the season will be canceled,'' Daly said. ``There will be no further contact with the union before the season is canceled unless they reach out to us.''

Don't count on that happening.

``We're not going to pick up the phone this weekend,'' union senior director Ted Saskin said after the four-hour meeting. ``We're done.''

And so ended what was likely the last chance to keep the NHL from becoming the first major league in North America to cancel an entire season because of a labor dispute. An official announcement could come within days.

Nearly five months after the lockout started, the league and the players are still on opposite sides of the salary-cap argument. The owners insist on a link between revenues and player costs, and the union vows never to accept it.

``Their outright rejection of our proposal yesterday I think speaks more to the fact that the union is never, ever, ever, ever _ under any circumstances _ prepared to play under any kind of cost-certain, economic partnership, salary cap _ you pick the term _ type of system,'' Daly said.

``As long as that continues to be their position, it's going to continue to be difficult for us to resolve this.''

But the players' association doesn't understand why the NHL will only consider one option to fix the league's financial woes.

``I think it's been very clear from Day 1 that this has never been about having a negotiation,'' Saskin said. ``They have made it clear they have only one way of doing things and that's through their hard-cap system.

``There are clearly other ways to reduce player costs but they have not been prepared to look at any other way. The writing has been on the wall for some time.''

And now time is a major factor.

Daly and commissioner Gary Bettman went to Toronto on Wednesday to give the players' association two things: a final offer and a deadline to make a deal.

Bettman said an agreement had to be ready to be put into writing by the weekend in order for there to be a season. The one he had in mind was already cut down from 80 to 28 games but would retain a standard, 16-team playoff structure.

But the offer that came with it never stood a chance.

The NHL suggested a new deal be made using the players' association's proposal from Dec. 9 that included a luxury-tax system and a 24 percent salary rollback on existing contracts.

But if any of four financial conditions were exceeded, then the NHL's salary-cap offer from last week would go into effect the following season. Teams would then be forced to spend at least $32 million on player costs but no more than $42 million, including benefits.

Players' association executive director Bob Goodenow said that at least one of the triggers would immediately be exceeded if this deal was put in place, and others could be easily reached.

Saskin called the proposal a public relations ``gimmick'' and the idea wasn't revisited Thursday.

Now it appears both sides will have to deal with the unknown repercussions that come with canceling a season in a league that is already low on the popularity scale in the United States.

``We're all suffering from the damage done,'' Saskin said. ``But the players have been resolute in waiting to get the right deal, the right deal for the sport and one that's fair for both to operate under. And that's not what the league has been prepared to do.''

As to be expected, the league felt the same about the players' association.

``Quite frankly, I don't know why they asked us to stay overnight,'' Daly said. ``I don't know what their agenda was. I just know there was no progress.''

If the deadline was set to pressure the players' association to give in to the salary-cap demand, it hasn't worked so far.

``We were not deadline hunting in any way,'' Saskin said.

During the meeting at the league's office in Canada, the sides spent 2 1/2 hours huddling separately. When it was over, Daly and Bettman immediately returned to New York.

The lockout has wiped out 824 of the 1,230 regular-season games through this weekend's scheduled All-Star game. If the season is canceled, there is no telling when there will be NHL hockey again.

``I have no idea as I sit here today,'' Saskin said.

The sides have been assisted by mediators _ as recently as last week in Newark, N.J. _ but neither felt that was how a deal would be worked out.

``This isn't a negotiation that failed due to a lack of understanding,'' Daly said. ``This is a negotiation that has failed for other reasons. I don't think a mediator would help.''

The NHL also put some more specific numbers to their revenue-sharing proposal, and Saskin said it was in the $80 million range of a $2 billion pie.

Saskin said those numbers showed that teams are not willing to enter into partnerships with each other let alone with the players' association.

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