As they gather today for one more try, it's unclear just which NHL season the players and owners are trying to salvage.
Can they be serious about resetting the Doomsday Clock from 11:59 for a skeleton schedule next month? Or will the Toronto meeting between six top lieutenants from both sides hit final impasse on the salary-cap issue this season and dig in for 2005-06?
With most players claiming the owners intended all along to burn this season to back up their hard-cap demands, no miracles are expected today.
"I don't want to jump to any conclusions (about a lost season)," Maple Leafs player rep Bryan McCabe said yesterday. "But obviously there are a lot of boundaries to cover in a short time. I have no idea what's going to happen."
The one positive is that these same six men re-established dialogue last week after a Cold War set in before the holidays. The players will be represented by union president Trevor Linden of the Vancouver Canucks, who organized two days of low-level talks last week, as well as senior director Ted Saskin and outside counsel John McCambridge.
The owners will be led by executive vice-president and general counsel Bill Daly, chairman of the board of governors Harley Hotchkiss and outside counsel Bob Batterman. Absent, but very much there in spirit, will be commissioner Gary Bettman and union executive director Bob Goodenow.
There were reports that Pittsburgh Penguins owner/superstar player Mario Lemieux is in town but both the NHL and NHLPA said he won't be joining the group of six at the meeting.
The owners' lineup is under most scrutiny. They requested this meeting after a weekend of reviewing the union position from talks last Thursday and Friday. Those ended in pessimism, with Linden later posting a gloom and doom message for all players regarding the chances of a deal -- and a 2004-05 season. Hotchkiss missed the second day of last week's talks to attend a funeral and his return is seen as a better chance for progress. Daly, however, has said the owners won't be putting forth a new proposal.
"Both parties agreed at last week's meeting that the time for formal proposals, at least during this process, may be behind us," Daly told The Canadian Press. "We should try to sit at the table and discuss through the issues and maybe jointly craft something that might work."
Linden had warned the league not to bother coming back with another salary cap plan. Though Daly apparently has obliged by saying "new ideas" will be introduced today, it does little to fast-track the negotiating process. Close to 800 games of 1,230 overall would be lost by the time a new CBA is forged next month and a training camp included.
More speculation has revolved around trying to find something in a soft cap in the $40 million US range that will incorporate some of the players wishes.
"Hearing some of the things in the last few days, we kind of settled on the fact that we were going to be here all year because it sounds like all the league wants is a (hard) salary cap," Ottawa Senators defenceman Chris Phillips said.
But Daly said that progress in talks should not be measured by a marathon daily bargaining session.
"Any time during this process it may make sense to step back and discuss internally before you go back to the table," he said. "At points you run into dead ends and you need to step back and try to see if there are creative ways around the dead ends. I don't think necessarily that every day between now and us either having an agreement or a cancellation (of the season) will be spent together, but that doesn't mean it won't be time spent toward making the process successful."