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ROBERT TYCHKOWSKI -- Edmonton Sun

, Last Updated: 7:04 AM ET

Well, that didn't go very well, did it? Everybody knew the NHL planned on turning down the NHLPA's latest offer yesterday, but the hockey world still held its breath when the two adversaries met face to face in what many believe was the final chance to save a season.

There wasn't one good reason to believe things would turn out any differently than they did, but when all you've got left is hope, you hope.

So we hoped that maybe the NHL's counter-offer would be creative enough to at least keep the players at the table. We hoped the players wouldn't be so militant that they'd walk away at the first sign of trouble.

We hoped they would still be talking this morning.

We hoped there might still be hockey.

Then a puff of white smoke rose from the Air Canada Centre chimney and all hell broke loose.

STRONGEST, MOST FORCEFUL ADDRESS

In his strongest and most forceful address to date, NHL commissioner Gary Bettman shot the NHLPA's proposal full of holes, then used the butt end to pound them with a counter-offer so tough it even caught union members, already bracing for the worst, by surprise.

"It's come to a point where it's all too obvious that Gary Bettman's only intent is to break the union,'' said Edmonton Oilers' player rep Steve Staios, adding it will never happen. "Not a chance. They'll never break the union. I hope they have a different game plan in their head because that is never going to happen.''

So, with just days left until there won't be enough games left to salvage a season, the two sides are angrier and farther apart than they were a year ago.

There are no meetings scheduled and the union is not preparing a counter-proposal. Asked if there was any chance for a miracle, all union chief Bob Goodenow could offer up was snide sarcasm.

"You have to go across the street and ask Gary Bettman,'' he said. "He's in charge of whether there's a season or not.''

If Bettman is carrying an olive branch somewhere, you can't see it behind his double-barrelled shotgun. Not only did his counter-offer include a link between salaries and revenues, which the players say is a deal killer in itself, it also does away with rookie bonuses and wipes out arbitration.

He even put the screws to the players' 24% rollback, restructuring it so lower-end players are untouched and players making over $5 million are cut 35%.

"We studied the (union's) proposal extensively, discussed it among the 30 clubs and the unanimous conclusion is that the union's proposal does not work,'' said Bettman. "There needs to be a link between revenues and expenses. The time for guesswork is over.''

So now it's a staring contest, which Bettman says the owners are more than up for.

"My hope is that union leadership recognizes that the owners' resolve is great,'' he said. "The sooner union leaders and players realize that, the sooner we can move forward. The longer this goes on it's only going to get worse, it's not going to get easier.''

Union members who were hoping for just a sliver of optimism out of yesterday's meeting have pretty much given up hope.

"I don't see us making an offer any time in the near future,'' said Oilers' captain Jason Smith. "We've been negotiating against ourselves from the start. Their master plan all along was to try and cause dissension among the ranks of our association and it's not going to happen.''

Ethan Moreau says Bettman wields too much power.

"I don't understand how in the owners' eyes, this is their guy. What do they say to him? You got your ass kicked in '94, you haven't grown the game, and now you're washing out a season. Go get 'em, Gar. We'll give you one more try.'

"A group of guys have to emerge from the ownership group and say 'We're better equipped to do this than you are, you haven't done a good job.' ''

LONGER IT GOES, UGLIER IT GETS

One thing they can agree on is that the longer this goes, the uglier it's going to get.

"Certainly it will,'' said Staios. "The more he ignores our willingness to negotiate, the more unified we become. We've been brought up to stick up for your teammates, stick up for your family and do what's right. But it's unfortunate that the players have bent over the way we have to try and get the season going, getting our hopes up for no reason when the intent the whole time was shutting down the season.

"Most of us are Canadian, we grew up loving this game. Having this season shut down will be devastating to everybody.''


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