A window of hope?

AL STRACHAN -- Toronto Sun

, Last Updated: 8:21 AM ET

Perhaps National Hockey League commissioner Gary Bettman should have watched a few more hockey games.

Had he done so, he might have learned that if you drop your gloves and challenge an opponent, you're not likely to get out of it without a fight.

At 6 p.m. last night, Bettman issued a take-it-or-leave-it edict to the NHL Players' Association saying he was presenting a final offer based on a salary cap of $42-million US per team.

The accompanying letter was curt, if not downright antagonistic. It said that since time was so short, there was no window for negotiation.

At 10 p.m., the PA responded in kind, saying that time was indeed short, thanks to Bettman's refusal to back off his salary-cap position until Monday night.

However, the union said, it too had an offer. This one was based on a $49-million salary cap.

The league promptly rejected that offer, with Bettman saying "We cannot afford your proposal."

At midnight, the PA replied again, with Goodenow saying "You will receive nothing further from us."

Bettman had said that his offer was final and if it were not accepted by 11 a.m. today, he would cancel the season at 1 p.m.

Now it remains to be seen what happens next.

Both sides have made major shifts in their entrenched positions in the past two days.

The NHL, which had said repeatedly that it could not accept any system that did not link salaries to revenues, decided that it can live without that linkage.

The NHLPA, which said repeatedly that it could not accept any system that involved a salary cap, decided it can live with a cap if it's high enough.

Now the question has boiled down to a monetary one. What is high enough?

We don't yet know but what we do know is that as a result of the Monday accord, constituents in both camps are furious.

Owners have been screaming at Bettman that they had been promised a linkage system and that they have been betrayed.

Players have been screaming at NHLPA executive director Bob Goodenow that the key issue in this lockout was the total rejection of a salary cap and now, the union has reversed its stand.

So the owners are unhappy and the players are unhappy. But the fans who want the season to resume as soon as possible should be delighted.

If either side had been totally comfortable with the Monday accord, then it's certain that the other side would have hated it. The only kind of settlement that is going to be agreed upon is one that makes each side feel as if it lost.

To get the players back on the ice, there has to be compromise and, by definition, that means one side gives something it would rather keep in order to get something the other side doesn't want it to have.

Therefore, both sides have to feel deprived. Since they do, there is cause for optimism.

Now, the decision as to whether the game returns this year depends on some last-minute volleys. Because Bettman's 11 a.m. deadline is an arbitrary one, it could easily be extended.

Some players are opposed to any salary-cap proposal saying that they have held out for four months against attempts to impose a cap and cannot betray that principle now.

But others say that a team payroll of $42.5 million is a healthy sum and if they do not agree to this deal, they will have to rely on European hockey to provide their salaries for the foreseeable future, not a particularly bright prospect.

And there's one other factor that militates in favour of acceptance. By doing so, the players can say that they made a sacrifice for the good of the game, that they took the hit not for money but because they knew, as the rest of us know, that the league is already in the midst of a public-relations disaster and it can not afford to miss a full season or more.

But now it's the owners to make a tough decision.


Videos

Photos