SUN Hockey Pool

D-Day for NHL

LANCE HORNBY -- Toronto Sun

, Last Updated: 8:25 AM ET

The National Hockey League and its Players Association bravely swallowed each other's poison in the past 48 hours, but it's not yet enough to save the season.

The two sides spent last night crafting and rejecting respective collective bargaining proposals, as commissioner Gary Bettman's scheduled 1 p.m. press conference to cancel the remainder of the schedule quickly looms.

In a high-stakes game of chicken, the league clung to a $42.5 million US salary cap with no linkage to revenues, a stance that many small market teams in Bettman's camp opposed. Bob Goodenow and the union executive, which outraged many of its own constituents by embracing the hated cap yesterday, made more concessions by lowering it to $49 million from their original lofty $52 million demand. The players are already facing a 24% salary rollback.

COUNTER-OFFER

"This is our last effort to make a deal that's fair to the players and one that the clubs (hopefully) can afford," Bettman said in an early evening letter to Goodenow. "We have no more flexibility and there is no time for further negotiation."

Goodenow upstaged Bettman four hours after receiving the owners' offer with his own letter and counter-offer. It contained a $49 million cap, with a luxury tax component that kicks in at 25% at $40-43 million, 50% up to $46 million, 75% to $49 million and 150% up to $53.9 million, which can be applied twice per team during the deal's six-year term.

Bettman tossed that back at him within an hour.

It's unclear how Bettman's orginal 11 a.m. deadline for the union to accept the 'take-it-or-leave-it' offer was affected by Goodenow's offer. Goodenow chided Bettman for waiting so long to take linkage off the table in order to move talks along. There are unhappy diehards in both camps, particularly among the 700-strong union, who will condemn their dramatic concessions.

"Hopefully the owners acknowledge they got what they set out to get," said Calgary Flames' captain Jarome Iginla, who had pressed his bargaining committee to try every avenue of negotiation last week as the season appeared dead.

GAUGING SUPPORT

The union was contacting players on both sides of the Atlantic last night to gauge support for the deal, though a full vote might not be required. Maple Leafs player rep Bryan McCabe did not return calls from the Sun last night.

Despite all the vitriol of the past few years, a five-month lockout, tens of millions of dollars in losses for owners, players and businesses, not to mention turning fans against the league, a 28- to 30-game schedule is a strong possibility. It would include a week to 10-day training camp, run through March and April with a full playoff to follow. If there's no season, fired up owners such as Tom Hicks of the Dallas Stars reiterated a threat to bring in replacement players next year. A deal would prevent the NHL from becoming North America's first pro sports league to lose an entire season. Its salvation would mirror the NBA's labour disruption in 1998-99, when a collective bargaining agreement was announced the same day that season was to have been scrapped.

Though Bettman vowed there would be no re-launch of the season, without a fully "lawyered" CBA, American labour relations consultant Bill Adams predicted there would be no problems tying up the myriad details quickly.

"They won't worry about getting into the nitty gritty," Adams said. "If both sides really want a deal, they'll settle the major issues with a memorandum of agreement."


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