The lock remains chained in place on the 2004-05 National Hockey League season, waiting only for Bob Goodenow and Gary Bettman to officially throw away the key.
That 'drop-dead date' whether proclaimed or not, is expected around Dec. 15. By then, the league's 45-day rolling window to start play would reach Feb. 1 and make even a 40-game schedule difficult. There must be provision for a normal two-month playoff drive, vital to ownership's coffers, but one that can't lag past July 1, a date Bettman has ruled unsuitable for fan interest in hockey.
But hardly anyone expects a change of heart by Goodenow, the executive director of the Players Association, or Bettman in the next two weeks.
A dinner meeting tomorrow night between Bettman and the 30 general managers at a restaurant in New York City is not going to alter the picture, though it's expected Bettman won't keep his GM foot soldiers in the dark and reveal something of his exit strategy for the season.
Ted Saskin, senior director of the NHLPA, hoped Bettman would use the dinner meeting to give the GMs a full explanation of the union's last proposal, which it claims has been censored at the executive level.
"The discussions I've had with a few GMs over the last couple of months make it very clear they don't have much information about our proposals or what the League's proposals have been to date," Saskin said yesterday. "Hopefully the NHL will use their meeting as an opportunity to not only bring their GMs up to date, but also get some input on what type of salary restraints could be considered other than just a salary cap."
Unlike 1994, Bettman might not put a deadline on the season at all, a strategy that panicked some owners into seeking peace in that 103-day lockout. That also would keep the union guessing about his intentions and could affect the timing of a planned mass meeting in Toronto for sometime between now and Dec. 24.
There remains a strong possibility of the players making a last-ditch offer. Though Goodenow and Saskin steadfastly have denied they have such a proposal ready, they have been careful not to rule out making one this month. It's likely the union will just try a face-saving exercise, re-packaging their offer to roll back salaries 5%, which they claim would be more than $100 million US in savings, as well as change the entry level salary system, for a projected league-wide saving of $60 million. If the owners kill the season, the players could then sit back and say 'well, we tried', thus making Bettman the heavy.
But don't expect Bettman to adopt the players' luxury tax solution ahead of the cap that he has promised the owners he'll deliver. He wants to see the average player salary fall from $1.8 million US to $1.3 million.
"There's not going to be any hockey," Red Wings player rep Manny Legace told The Detroit News. "It's a joke. The league doesn't want to negotiate."
There remains the possibility Bettman or Goodenow might try a last-ditch, person-to-person attempt to break the deadlock. Bill Watters, former player agent and assistant general manager of the Maple Leafs suggested on Mojo Radio that Bettman might give his old negotiating foe a heads-up about the drop-dead date and see if there's any wiggle room.
Watters rejected a popular notion that the players will take their last proposal right to the owners and bypass Bettman or that Bettman will deliver a soft cap offer to each of the 750 rank-and-file players to thwart Goodenow.
"I think both men are too professional for that," Watters said.