NHL cap a possibility?

LANCE HORNBY -- Toronto Sun

, Last Updated: 9:26 AM ET

A secret Valentine's Day rendezvous in Niagara Falls yesterday to avoid a messy divorce between the National Hockey League and the Players Association ended with more heartbreak for fans, with NHL commissioner Gary Bettman now set to end the season at 1 p.m. tomorrow.

A meeting that began early in the day and broke at 10:30 p.m. at an undisclosed hotel in the honeymoon capital concluded like so many previous attempts to end years of collective bargaining stalemate.

"No progress was made ... there will be no further comment," league senior vice-president Bill Daly said in a statement after the one-on-one session with Ted Saskin, the union's senior director.

The release did not rule out that 11th-hour talks could occur today.

Sources told Sun Media that yesterday's meeting, which was called partially at the urging of a small group of the more than 700 players and by factions in the league who have twice backed off a deadline this week, explored two possible avenues to a deal: A salary cap higher than that previously proposed by owners and no linkage between the cap and league revenues.

"Miracles happen but (a late deal) would be the mother of all miracles," Senators owner Eugene Melnyk told The Team radio station in Ottawa yesterday.

It's not believed any proposals were exchanged last night in the Falls as the lockout reached five full months.

MEDIATION FIZZLED

Previously, Bettman had declared chances for a 28-game regular season nil if meaningful talks weren't under way by this past weekend.

Fruitless discussions in Washington involving a U.S. federal mediator on Sunday seemed to make cancellation a certainty, but the NHL made no announcement yesterday, and yesterday's talks pushed Bettman's press conference, slated for today, to tomorrow.

Sun Media was told a group of six players, which may have included St. Louis Blues' Chris Pronger, Calgary Flames' Jarome Iginla and Philadelphia Flyers' Jeremy Roenick, were trying to push for a cap, starting at around $30 million US and going as high as $45 million, without a link to revenues.

Pronger and Iginla had publicly implored NHLPA executive director Bob Goodenow to attempt every effort on the players' behalf to save the NHL from being the first professional sports league to wipe out a full season.

In an interview last night with the Philadelphia Inquirer, the outspoken Roenick confirmed he was part of the group, but only by calling other players to gauge their level of interest in such a scenario.

"We're a strong union, but we are frustrated with the lack of communication, the lack of dialogue and negotiation by the NHL," he said. "It feels like we've given and given and the owners keep coming back each time asking for more. The proposal was (the players) would accept a salary cap at a much higher level if it were not linked to revenues."

Bob Goodenow and his lieutenants have remained opposed to any cap. Roenick said this is not a revolt to undermine Goodenow's authority, simply a sign that players care.

If the season is cancelled tomorrow, the best fans can hope for is that both sides do not harden and jeopardize the start of the 2005-06 season.


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