What is NHL thinking?

LANCE HORNBY -- Toronto Sun

, Last Updated: 8:16 AM ET

Is it posturing? Panicking? Trying to polarize players? Or will it be purposeful and positive?

Just what's on the National Hockey League's agenda after it called the players association to a secret locale here tomorrow is unclear. But with more than 700 of 1,230 games already gone, the last ditch might already be dug to bury hockey for the 2004-05 season and beyond.

The Toronto gathering will again be a small group, without league commissioner Gary Bettman and union boss Bob Goodenow. Possibly, it will advance one of the multiyear concepts informally discussed last week.

"I'd love to hear if it's going to be a new offer," Maple Leafs' Wade Belak said last night from England, where he's playing for the Coventry Blaze. "But I can't see the owners doing a 180-degree turn away from a salary cap. Maybe it will be another attempt to split us up (a December offer from the owners to slice 35% off a player's pay for those making $5 million US and higher while limiting it to between nothing and 15% for those below $1.5 million was rejected). But I'm not expecting to go home yet."

SOUR END

Despite a sour end to two days of similar talks last week, there was consensus that the owners still would put in a final offer this week, if only as a public relations exercise.

"I would be very surprised if we were able to get an agreement," NHLPA vice-president Daniel Alfredsson told Sun Media last night. "We're not going to accept a hard cap, but it's good we're talking."

The owners might table something just to back up their case of good faith bargaining, which must be proven if they intend to declare an impasse and try to use replacement players down the road.

"I don't want to say much because I don't want to do anything that is going to be detrimental to the process," NHLPA president Trevor Linden said. "We'll see what happens. They haven't cancelled the season yet, so I'm not going to give up."

Former NHL goalie turned TSN analyst Glenn Healy has said in the past that "the owners want players to eat haggis" in the form of a hard cap, but doubts the union's resolve would be swayed by a new offer along the same lines at this late date.

"Haggis can be tasty to some people, but this (ongoing owners' stance) is beneath haggis," Healy said. "It's my understanding the owners could offer a cap of around $32 million, but with a (player-palatable) luxury tax component that could take it up to $46 million or $48 million, so teams such as Toronto could spend.

"But if you're not prepared to try to negotiate something other than a hard cap, I don't know what the purpose of the meeting would be."

RHETORIC

Though no specific offers were traded at last week's Linden-organized meeting, there was at least an air of civility after weeks of rhetoric. But after both sides admitted wide philosophical differences still existed, Linden put a message on the NHLPA's private website that this season likely was gone.


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