It's going, going ...

LANCE HORNBY -- Toronto Sun

, Last Updated: 8:19 AM ET

Gary Bettman's plane took off for New York last night, and with it likely went the last hope of a National Hockey League season.

But yesterday's breakdown in talks between the league and the Players' Association -- with no proposals exchanged and no further communication planned -- still can't definitely be called the end, in what has become a protracted death scene from an amateur production of Hamlet.

The league's senior vice-president Bill Daly, who participated in one of the most heated exchanges of the 149-day lockout yesterday, spoke for Bettman after the four-hour meeting, but would not go further than repeat the commissioner's statement from the night before -- that tentative plans for a 28-game season rest on constructive talks starting by this weekend.

A league statement referred to "a formal announcement (on killing the season) in the near future" if no talks are forthcoming with the union executive director, Bob Goodenow.

Daly did raise the spectre of replacement players for next year, saying the league would examine all avenues of business should the season be called.

Daly, speaking at the league office where several staffers watched glumly from the sidelines said the union's invitation to stay over on Wednesday night was essentially a waste of time.

"The union was as inflexible today as it was six and a half years ago," Daly said, going back to early attempts to forge a new collective bargaining agreement.

"There's no further creativity left on this side in terms of trying to get a deal done. At this point, we're kind of out of tricks."

In Wednesday's meeting, the league offered to start a new CBA this season under the union's Dec. 9 luxury tax/salary rollback plan, but with four economic "triggers" that would easily revert the deal to the league's hard salary cap rules.

Ted Saskin, the union's senior director, said that left little room for compromise.

" Take it or leave it, is how it looked to us," Saskin said. "But they read all the newspapers yesterday and saw that no one was fooled. Any time we're not making dramatic concessions (such as the 24% rollback), it seems we're wasting their time.

"They gave us some details of their revenue-sharing plan (yesterday), but 11 of their clubs would be unprofitable by their own number. It seemed to us Gary was getting frustrated."

Daly said Bettman does not need the formality of convening the 30-team board of governors to cancel the season. It is expected such an announcement would come Monday or Tuesday from New York.

A dwindling number of optimists believe well-heeled owners will press for more talks and will be met halfway by Goodenow, who thus far has protected his reputation as a deadline-hunting negotiator.

"I guess I would have expected that even Bob would have thought that we are at the midnight hour," Daly said. "Maybe he doesn't. The fact is, today was a pointless meeting."

Many have also wondered why outside mediation has not been enlisted. Daly, however, revealed yesterday that the U.S.-based Federal Mediation and Conciliation Service assigned two agents to the NHL-NHLPA file and they had been involved as late as last week. But Daly said it became clear this wasn't a traditional labour situation where mediators could help and the league wished to remain in charge of its own fate.

Saskin said the mediators had been welcome to offer new solutions, but didn't think they had improved the situation.


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