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Owner: League could cancel season by Friday

While one prominent player said a salary cap might be palatable to most of his colleagues, an NHL team owner said he expects the season to be canceled as early as Friday.

Such was the ebb and flow during a day of secretive meetings between the NHL and players' association as the two sides met for nine hours Thursday in New York, a day after the players' association rejected the league's latest salary-cap proposal. However, the union did invite commissioner Gary Bettman and players' association chief Bob Goodenow back to the table Thursday after the leaders sat out the previous five sessions over a two-week span.


The talks resumed Friday and lasted about four hours, but Bob Goodenow of the NHLPA said no significant progress made.

In a statement issued Thursday night, the league said it would not comment on the process.

A team owner, requesting anonymity, said before Thursday's meeting that barring a turnaround in the ongoing labor talks, he expects the league to announce as early as Friday it is canceling the 2004-05 season, ESPN the Magazine's EJ Hradek has learned.

But Philadelphia Flyers center Jeremy Roenick -- who is not directly involved with the negotiations -- told ESPN on Thursday night he believes most players would vote in favor of a proposal that includes a salary cap at $45 million-$50 million. That would be well above the latest league proposal for a cap between $32 million and $42 million, and against the players' vow that they will never accept a cap.

If the season is canceled, the NHL would be the first North American sports league to lose an entire season to a labor dispute. The Stanley Cup has been awarded every
year since 1919, when a flu epidemic wiped out the final series between Montreal and Seattle.

The main sticking point remains the league's commitment to getting cost certainty and the players' association's insistence to maintain a system without it. The union flatly turned down the somewhat flexible cap -- which the league termed a "floating team payroll range" -- formally proposed by the league this week.

The 4½-month lockout reached its 141st day Thursday, and it has forced the cancellation of 772 of the 1,230 regular-season games, plus the All-Star Game.

Neither side expressed optimism Wednesday that the
philosophical differences could be bridged, but Bettman and
Goodenow were needed in the room before any deal could possibly be
reached.

The NHL proposed a six-year deal that contained a cap that would
force teams to spend at least $32 million on player costs but no
more than $42 million -- including benefits. The union needed only a
few hours to turn it down.

There were other components to the offer, such as a
profit-sharing plan, reduced age for unrestricted free agency, a
raise of the minimum salary, and the continued conclusion of
guaranteed contracts, but the issue has always been about a salary
cap.

Bettman has said that teams lost a total of more than $1.8
billion over 10 years and that management will not agree to a deal
without a defined relationship between revenue and salaries.

Last season's average salary was $1.8 million, and the NHL wants
to push that back with a salary cap. The latest offer would give
players between 53 and 55 percent of league revenues.

An economic study commissioned by the NHL found that players got
75 percent of revenues, but the union has challenged many of the
league's findings.

The NHL has been operating under the same collective bargaining
agreement since 1995, when the last lockout went 103 days before a
48-game season was played.

Information from The Associated Press was used in this report.