Going, going ...

ROBERT TYCHKOWSKI -- Edmonton Sun

, Last Updated: 7:04 AM ET

If there is a Doomsday clock somewhere, one that tells us how many minutes we're away from 30 mushroom clouds over 30 NHL cities, you should know that it started ticking at 11 a.m. and there doesn't seem any way to stop it. Nobody knows exactly when midnight is, but the last faint hopes for a peaceful resolution before then will be exhausted today when Gary Bettman and his ownership committee are expected to reject the NHLPA's latest offer and counter with the one thing players vowed would kill the season on contact: A link between revenues and salaries.

With 87% of NHL players in a recent Hockey News poll saying they'd rather stay out than accept any form of cost certainty, and with Bettman needing only eight ownership votes to keep a salary cap on the negotiating table, it'll take a Christmas miracle to save the season.

THE LAST HOURS

"We're getting down to the last hours,'' said Oilers' player rep Ethan Moreau. "If the owners' next proposal is the same as their last one, with no concessions at all, just a salary cap, then we're in trouble. The season will be lost.''

"We're not going to accept a salary cap,'' added winger Brad Isbister. "If they reject it and come back with a cap, we're just that much farther apart.''

An NHL memo leaked yesterday confirms the league will indeed reject the PA's offer - something players knew last week when Bettman said a 24% salary rollback wouldn't fix serious systemic problems - but the memo doesn't spell out details of the counter-proposal. If there's a cap in it, all we can do is watch the clock.

"You'd have to be pretty naive to think they'd just agree to our terms ,'' said Moreau. "We knew they wouldn't accept it, but they have to work with us. If there's something in their proposal that gives us even a window to negotiate, that's all we want.

"If they come back with a hard cap, what do we do? Come back with another proposal? Give up our first-born, too?''

If that baby is wearing a salary cap, they'll talk. If not, get ready for a nuclear winter.

"I don't expect a quick resolution one way or the other,'' said Edmonton Investor's Group chairman Cal Nichols, who has shown steely resolve throughout the battle. "What we're going through is just a process; it's gone on longer than you wish it would have and I feel badly for those who miss the game as much as most of us do, yet there's no short-cutting this.''

That's the diplomatic way of saying "as long as it takes.''

Because of a gag order handed down by the NHL, Nichols isn't allowed to speak on whether or not the season can be saved, but he did say the PA's highly publicized rollback would not be enough to save the Oilers, who have "extended their thoughts and opinions to the negotiating committee.''

AN ENTICEMENT

"My opinion, and that of the Edmonton Oilers, is that what's on the table is an enticement for teams to keep doing, essentially, what they've been doing,'' he said. "And the Edmonton Oilers aren't going to be here long term if that's what we're prepared to accept.''

Nichols says the one-time salary rollback is barely even a short-term fix.

"It was a recognition that we really do have significant financial problems. At least that much was accomplished by it, and appreciated,'' he said. "But the free spenders, what are they going to do the day (the deal) is in place?''

Spend. But if that's the case, Moreau says the owners' beef is with the owners, not the players.

"Why should we have to hold the hands of owners who are brilliant businessmen? Why do we have to baby sit them through the process? We're going to give them a new marketplace, then it's up them. It's frustrating that we have to protect them from each other.''

FRUSTRATING EVERYONE

It's frustrating to everyone, but that's where we are. And until Colorado, St. Louis and Dallas are no longer using Edmonton and Calgary as farm teams, there's no hockey. And if 30 mushroom clouds go off, most of those 30 cities are going to be OK with that - the U.S. markets because they don't care, the Canadian ones because they do.

"Our fans have been outstanding,'' said Nichols. "They have a clear understanding of the philosophy of this team and what it's going to take to keep it here.

"As this goes on I just remain very much at peace and confident that it'll work out.''

Just not this year.


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