Tick, talk: Time's up

BRUCE GARRIOCH -- Ottawa Sun

, Last Updated: 8:06 AM ET

TORONTO -- By day's end, the NHL could very well stand for the No Hockey League.

So as the league and its union gather today for one more -- and probably last -- kick at the can, it's unclear just which season the warring sides are trying to salvage.

Is it an attempt to reach a deal so we can start seeing hockey in February? Or is the 2004-05 season lost, with the focus of this meeting geared toward the 2005-06 campaign?

NHL VP Bill Daly, who will lead the negotiations for the owners today, said the league won't be bringing a new offer to the table as was anticipated, but is willing to discuss "concepts" to help find a solution.

If no offer is being tabled, how can the two sides find any common ground?

"Both parties agreed at last week's meeting that the time for formal proposals, at least during this process, may be behind us and we should try to sit at the table and discuss through the issues and maybe jointly craft something that might work. That's what we're going to try to continue to do," said Daly.

Frankly, the players don't want another offer from the owners if it's going to contain a hard salary cap -- a point that was made clear by NHLPA president Trevor Linden at the end of the bargaining session held here last week.

"That's probably good news that they're not going to bring a proposal," NHLPA VP Bill Guerin said last night from Dallas. "That will allow us to have good conversations to see if we can find a solution to this thing."

SECRET BALLOT ON CAP?

Sources say the league might challenge the union to hold a secret ballot among the players on whether they would accept a hard salary cap.

It's believed one of the concepts that could be presented by the NHL would contain a $45-million (all terms US) hard cap. That would include a revenue-sharing component between $35 and $45 million and the NHL would try to sell it as a break from cost certainty.

The players have refused to even discuss the possibility of a cap. Linden said following last week's negotiating session there was no common ground.

NO LEMIEUX

There was some excitement in Toronto yesterday when it was learned Penguins owner/superstar Mario Lemieux was in town, but both the NHL and NHLPA said he won't be joining today's meeting.

"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 salary cap," Senators defenceman Chris Phillips said from Gavle, Sweden last night.

"Nobody wants to lose the year. Everybody wants to get back to playing hockey, but we all came to the realization a long time ago that there may not be hockey this year. You hope they can get the situation settled, but you don't have much hope anything will get done."

MEANINGFUL MEETING?

Previewing today's NHL-NHLPA meeting:

REASONS FOR OPTIMISM

- Hardliners Bettman and Goodenow are not attending.

- Owners' chairman of the board Harley Hotchkiss, something of a moderate, is back after missing Day 2 of last week's discussions.

- Some on the owners' side at least willing to examine some form of soft cap/luxury tax, which could convince players to meet them halfway.

- The idea of a 36-game schedule starting in early February and lasting until late April is still plausible.

REASONS FOR PESSIMISM

- No new proposal expected and that's what's badly needed to get serious talks under way.

- Having stuck to their hard line of a salary cap, and with $300 million US in a war chest to see them through 2004-05, why would owners retreat at the last minute?

- Bob Batterman, the owners' outside counsel, is seen as a Bettman hawk, unlikely to foster compromise.


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