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Season really hangs in the balance

NEW YORK -- The NHL-imposed deadline for reaching a deal to
end the lockout came and went Wednesday, and still there was no
word on whether there would be hockey this season.

Commissioner Gary Bettman had given the players' union until 11
a.m. ET to accept the league's latest salary-cap proposal and said
there was no room or time for further negotiations.

Early Tuesday evening, the league had made a take-it-or-leave-it
pitch of a $42.5 million cap. The union responded with a cap figure
of its own: $49 million.

Shortly after 11 a.m. Wednesday, the NHL said nothing happened
at the deadline -- but gave no immediate indication of whether the
season was on or off.

NHL chief legal officer Bill Daly told The Associated Press in
an e-mail Wednesday morning that there was no contact or
discussions between the sides since they exchanged letters the
night before.

"What happened over the last 48 hours confirms again that Gary
and a small group of hard-line owners have had no interest in
reaching a deal with the players," union senior director Ted
Saskin said.

"To put it mildly, Gary's approach of putting forth a
ridiculously low number as a final offer and then responding to our
$49 million limit with ludicrous assumptions about what would
happen if 30 clubs decided to pay $49 million drove the
negotiations off a cliff," he said.

Bettman had previously set a 1 p.m. news conference in New York
with the intention of announcing that there wouldn't be any hockey
until at least next fall.

"Hopefully, the press conference will not be necessary," he
said in a letter to the union Tuesday.

The union was to hold its own news conference at 4 p.m. ET in
Toronto.

"If every team spent to the $49 million ... total player
compensation would exceed what we spent last season," Bettman said
in his second letter Tuesday to NHLPA executive director Bob
Goodenow. "We cannot afford your proposal."

Goodenow disputed Bettman's claim in a letter, taking a
hard-line stance and replying, "You will receive nothing further
from us."

"Clubs are spending significantly less than your team payroll
limit number of $42.5 million," Goodenow said in his second
letter. "I am at a loss to understand how you suggest your offer
earlier today represents a $75 million dollar increase when it only
impacts the spending of nine teams!"

The first real positive news of the lockout came early Tuesday
when the players' association accepted, for the first time, the
concept of a salary cap. That concession came after the NHL dropped
its demand that league revenues be linked to player costs.

So the players offered a $52 million cap; then the
back-and-forth really began.

Bettman's threatened cancellation of the season shifted the
pressure to the players, some of whom said Tuesday they were
surprised that the union accepted a salary cap this late in the
game.

"We probably could've gotten this thing done in the
summertime," Chicago forward Matthew Barnaby said. "I'm just a
little disappointed that it went this far to play poker and to have
someone call your bluff."

As of Tuesday, the 153rd day of the lockout, 834 of the 1,230
regular-season games and the All-Star game already have been lost
to a lockout that started Sept. 16.

Bettman said the sides needed to start putting a deal on paper
by last weekend if the NHL was going to hold a 28-game,
intra-conference schedule and a full 16-team playoff.

Bettman said teams needed to have cost certainty to survive and
the only way he could guarantee that was with a salary cap that
linked league revenues to player costs. Now that position has
changed for the first time since the NHL started gearing up for the
lockout in 1998.

The league has said teams lost $273 million in 2002-03 and $224
million last season, and an economic study commissioned by the NHL
found that players get 75 percent of league revenues. The union has
challenged those figures.