Tick-tock

ROBERT TYCHKOWSKI -- Edmonton Sun

, Last Updated: 8:12 AM ET

The end is near. A few months ago that would have been bad news. Now it's sweet relief.

After months of half-hearted negotiations, juvenile rhetoric, speculative deadlines and endless psychological torture, we're only days away from finally putting the NHL season out of its misery.

League commissioner Gary Bettman drew his line in the sand yesterday.

"You can do the math," Bettman said in a conference call after union leader Bob Goodenow rejected his latest offer. "If we're not drafting documents by this weekend there's no way that we can do everything we need to do in time to have any semblance of a season.

"When you're doing a schedule, at some point, as a practical matter, it's clear that there isn't enough time left. There has to be a reality to this. As terrible as it would be not to have a season, you can only have one if it makes sense."

And none of this does. So, after the way both sides have dragged the league, the negotiation process and the fans through the mud, there will be no sadness when Monday comes, only relief. Fido is finally getting the needle. The suffering is over.

"I don't think there's any amount of shock whatsoever," said Edmonton Oilers player rep Eric Brewer. "I think collectively we were all just prepared for it. A lot of fans have prepared for it as well. You talk to a lot of people and they've just written it off. Everyone is doing other things. Hockey is out of the picture."

True enough. A survey of Canadian hockey fans said 40% of them don't even miss the game, meaning Ken Dryden hit it right on the nose when he said we're realizing the game has become more of a habit than a passion. That's good, because from the looks of it, unless final negotiations yield a miracle solution, hockey is going to be out of the picture for a long time.

The league's last possible contingency schedule calls for 28 games (home-and-home series against the other 14 teams in your conference) and full playoffs.

But in the eyes of many, awarding a Stanley Cup after a 28-game season would only make the league look more bush than it already does. And do we really need to see Bettman and Goodenow at the podium with big grins and Game On hats, slapping each other on the back for "saving" the season?

Nevertheless, that's what they'll be working for over the next 48 hours.

"There's more than enough time if there's an inclination to make a deal," said the commissioner, adding the union wants to resume negotiations today. "So that's what we're going to do."

Bettman's offer yesterday was to accept the NHLPA's Dec. 9 proposal, which featured a 24% rollback, a luxury tax and no cap.

It sounded magnanimous at first, until you got to the part where they revert to the owners' Feb. 2 proposal (rollback, cap and linkage) if salaries hit any one of four triggers: If the average payroll exceeds $36.5 million, if more than three teams have payrolls exceeding $42 million, if salaries exceed 55% of revenues and if there's more than a 33% difference between the top and bottom three payrolls.

The triggers would be hit almost instantly, guaranteeing a salary cap in two years.

But it's take it or leave it.

"We will obviously listen to whatever the union has to say, but we have given all we can give and we've gone as far as we can go," said Bettman, adding that the offers are only going to be lower from here.

"I think there will be a tremendous amount of damage. The revenues will obviously decline if we don't play a season. I've been telling this to the union for years - the deal can only get worse the longer we go.

"That's not a threat, that is simply a reality of where we find ourselves."


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