'Final' offer won't fly

LANCE HORNBY -- Toronto Sun

, Last Updated: 8:20 AM ET

Jilted National Hockey League fans, bled by five months of failed owner-player courtship, likely will hear by Valentine's Day at the latest that their hearts will be broken for good this season.

In a surprise round of talks yesterday in Toronto between the four big guns on both sides, the league offered to start a 28-game schedule under the union's Dec. 9 salary rollback/payroll tax plan and continue for six years if it works. But it put down four hair trigger conditions that already have been rejected by the union as impossibly restrictive.

Faint hopes for a season could blow up as early as today if no headway is made at a follow-up meeting here.

NHL commissioner Gary Bettman warned "if we're not working on a written (collective bargaining agreement) document by this weekend, I don't see how we can play any semblance of a season."

But many players, owners and league personnel have suspected for weeks that it's too late for the NHL to play, the first time in 87 years it will not operate for a full season.

"It would be very daunting (to expect a season)," NHLPA executive director Bob Goodenow said following the afternoon talks at the union's College Park office.

Goodenow dismissed Bettman's "compromise" -- in which the owners' Feb. 2 proposal would kick in next year if any of the four economic triggers were pulled. One of those was having three teams exceed a $42-million US payroll.

"The proposal, with the trigger points, was a way to revert back to their Feb. 2 triple-cap proposal," Goodenow said. "It was obvious one of those triggers was going to kick in immediately. We forecast three teams would be over $42 million (once the Dec. 9 player salary rollback of 24% was factored in). It was a transparent proposal."

Bettman termed yesterday's offer "final", though despite the quick rejection, he and senior vice-president Bill Daly accepted Goodenow and union senior director Ted Saskin's offer to stay in Toronto to talk today, and possibly late last night.

"Obviously we will listen to everything the union has to say, but we've given all we can give and gone as far as we can go," Bettman insisted.

Bettman, defending himself against charges that he's waited too late to break the deadlock, said the league had made the last three offers since the players laid down their ace, a 24% salary rollback on Dec. 9.

The league's Feb. 2 offer revolved around a floating cap between $32 million and $42 million.

"It wouldn't matter if I made this offer a month ago, it wasn't accepted today," Bettman said. "I've been telling the union for years, the deal will only get worse the longer we go without (an agreement). That's not a threat, that's reality. They're prepared apparently to forego over $1 billion in compensation and perhaps hundreds of millions if not billions next year. You don't always understand it, but you have to respect it."

Bettman said the 28-game season would have each club play two games against the other 14 in the conference, with a full playoff.

But with time allotted for a week-long training camp, Bettman said the math dictated a decision on killing the season be made by this weekend.

"I would just like to get it over with," Dallas Stars winger Bill Guerin, a vice-president on the NHLPA's executive committee, told Sun Media last night.

"I'm not sure why this has dragged on as long as it has because everybody knew this was going to happen. It's too bad. But, I think this is what the owners wanted in the first place."


Videos

Photos