Last shot for NHL?

BRUCE GARRIOCH -- Ottawa Sun

, Last Updated: 8:51 AM ET

TROY, Mich. -- The big guns are returning to the NHL's labour talks, perhaps an ominous sign for those still hoping this season can be saved.

Today in New York, NHL commissioner Gary Bettman and NHLPA executive director Bob Goodenow will rejoin the negotiations for the first time since Dec. 14, with the clock close to striking midnight on the 2004-05 season.

The NHLPA won't be bringing a new deal to the table today, but sources say Goodenow will present the proposal first made by the union on Dec. 9 -- one that included a 24% salary rollback by the players -- and try to show how it can work.

The union flatly rejected a proposal by the league yesterday in Newark, N.J., which included a floating salary cap of $32-$42 million (all figures US) and a profit sharing offer.

"Do you want to buy a house in the swamp and then put some curtains on it?," asked NHLPA senior director Ted Saskin.

"The salary cap is the swamp."

Senators centre Bryan Smolinski knows what the cap talk means.

"It's done ... I can't see us playing this year. It's just not happening," he said. "That sounds like the same meagre stuff they've been trying to stuff down our throats for the last three years."

NHL VP Bill Daly didn't sound optimistic a deal can be reached, but wouldn't give a drop-dead date. However, he sounded a note of urgency, saying "if hockey is going to be played (this season), something has to be done imminently."

"The proposal was put together with what they've put on the table and what they've asked for in the last few weeks in mind. We've come a long way," said Daly, who added the league did not ask the NHLPA to have players vote on the proposal.

"We thought profit sharing should remove any worries about a salary cap because it would allow them to participate (in any success) we have. We are right down to the end here. Bob and Gary have to be in the room to get the deal done. It will be positive to have them in the room."

The proposal included a provision for the union to reopen the deal after four years, but the players don't believe the system offered can work or that it is much of a compromise.

"There hasn't been a change on the critical issue and that hasn't changed," said Saskin. "We think it's helpful to have the leaders (Bettman and Goodenow) in the room. We've gone as far as we can go in small groups. We're willing to take part in productive discussions and we'll keep talking."

It's still believed the league's goal is to eventually declare impasse and try to break the union by bringing in replacement players next fall.

"That's the way it's looking," said Red Wings defenceman Nik Lidstrom. "I hope they change their stance and realize the players won't give in on on a salary cap. I'm hoping that will happen this summer and they'll be able to come to an agreement.

"The players aren't going to cross the line. The players remain united. If there's replacement players, I don't think the fans are going to show up, either. The fans might go to a few games, but they're going to realize that they're not watching the same product."


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