SUN Hockey Pool

See you next year

AL STRACHAN -- Toronto Sun

, Last Updated: 11:42 AM ET

As soon as the news came through that they'd had pizza sent in, there was cause for optimism. When veteran labour lawyers are talking about the last-ditch stages of negotiation, they like to say that it is time to lock the doors and order the Chinese food.

Yesterday, they ordered Italian, not Chinese, but the principle was the same. It appeared that the top-level negotiators for the National Hockey League and the NHL Players' Association might finally be pulling the game back from the brink of disaster.

Unfortunately, it was not to be. The NHL insisted on sticking to its hard-cap demands and the progress that had been made -- such as it was -- came to naught.

Eventually the participants withdrew to their respective fortresses in New York and Toronto, to retrench for the next round -- if there is one.

But there had been some common ground. The two sides started off on Thursday by answering the most basic question: Was it worth bothering to try to effect a deal now, or was it already too late to have a meaningful season?

According to one of the team player representatives, NHLPA executive director Bob Goodenow has promised the players that he will not let the season go down the tubes without doing everything possible -- within the no-cap parameters they had agreed upon -- to find a way to play.

Even though some of his constituents feel that the integrity of the game would suffer if there were a truncated season, more of them want to play.

So there was some initial agreement between players and owners that they should continue to try to find a way to get a season rolling.

And apparently, there is no specific date that the end of the season will be announced although most media cynics --which includes pretty well everyone who deals with the NHL on a regular basis -- feel that the league might hide behind the Super Bowl hoopla and announce it tomorrow.

As is often the case with these secret meetings, "insider reports" were making the round.

One alleged that the two sides had agreed to play a 25-game schedule followed by three best-of-five playoff rounds and a best-of-seven Stanley Cup final.

However, as has been the case with so many stories that have emerged during this extended marathon, the report turned out to be wrong and was vehemently denied by both sides later in the day.

Unfortunately, though, none of this is likely to matter much. Although there was slight agreement on minor points, there was still not a hint of any agreement on the major points.

HARD SALARY CAP

The NHL keeps pressing for its hard salary cap and the players keep insisting on a free market.

As a result, the season which had been teetering on the brink is now dangling over the edge and hanging by a thread.

It should be clear to both sides that each is willing to miss an entire season, yet neither one is willing to back down.

The players have at least offered a number of methods for the league to attain its desired salary levels whereas the league has stuck steadfastly to its basic starting point and offered nothing but a variation on that theme. And neither seems likely to move soon.

There is a difference in the level of support. While Goodenow has a small contingent of unhappy players to deal with, Bettman has a significant number of owners who question the wisdom of missing a year.

Even though a dark year would be hard on players, the owners are seeing no return on what, for most of them, was a sizeable investment. And banks like loans to be paid down.

Nevertheless, barring a miracle, the hopes for a season ended when yesterday's meeting ended.

Both sides will be poorer for it.


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