NHL season on ice?

LANCE HORNBY -- Toronto Sun

, Last Updated: 9:12 AM ET

The National Hockey League Players' Association closed ranks yesterday, but in doing so brought the season closer to cancellation.

The renewed commitment in the face of a mini revolt did wonders for union morale, but nothing for the stagnated talks with the owners. After a three- and-a-half-hour meeting yesterday at a Toronto hotel, 74 players and the union executive appear even more determined to wait out commissioner Gary Bettman and the owners.

Senators captain Daniel Alfredsson went as far as telling Sun Media that he expects the season to be shelved because of Bettman's unwillingness to negotiate.

"I don't see us getting a deal," said Alfredsson, one of several NHLPA vice-presidents on hand yesterday. "The players are prepared to sit out a whole year if that's what it takes. We know there are things we can do to help the league, but it's not going to be a (Bettman) salary cap. With Gary's stance, it's take it or leave it. I think it's unlikely there will be a season."

Union executive director Bob Goodenow is inclined to think there won't be any hockey either and confirmed that no new proposal would be forwarded to the owners unless they respond to some of the ideas put forth by the players earlier in the year. The players lined up to take shots at Bettman's lack of flexibility, ranging from polite jabs to this doozy from Flyers' goaltender Robert Esche, as told to Sportsnet:

'MADMAN'

"We're talking to a madman. A guy who has no rhyme or reason. Personally, I don't even think he's a fan of the game."

Dallas winger Bill Guerin, another VP, said there was "no point" in going back to the league to negotiate when it won't budge on a cap.

"You can't negotiate with somebody who doesn't want to negotiate," he said.

But both sides might have underestimated how fed up the Canadian public is with this posturing. In a nationwide poll of 1,000 people conducted by SES Research and obtained by Sun Media, a 51% majority said it supported neither players nor owners on the cap issue. Support for owners was 35% with the players at 9%. On another question, just 16% would describe themselves as addicted to hockey, 42% say they only watch at playoff time and 38% said they'd rather read a book.

Nashville Predators forward Jim McKenzie said he isn't surprised at the public's anger.

"Right or wrong, it's millionaire players and billionaire owners, that's how the public sees it," he said.

The union was rattled last week when a number of players, mostly at the low end of the salary or NHL experience scale, began fretting about their lost opportunities and warming to the cap as a way to end the six-week lockout. They included Brian Pothier, Mike Commodore, Rob Ray and Pierre Dagenais, who showed up yesterday to face the music.

"I can tell you there are absolutely no cracks," Goodenow said. "You've heard a couple of players, and mostly younger players. We've got 700 players and you're going to have different opinions. To suggest there is (a crack) is a mischaracterization of the reality."

Bob Boughner, another VP, said the league had a nefarious strategy in that vein.

"(They want) to try to burn off a season to crack the union," he said. "It's a grave mistake on their part."

Asked how the union as a whole would react if the stalemate kills the season, Boughner said, "We'll be able to put our heads on the pillow at night and know we did everything in our power to compromise."


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