All-around rejection

Gary Bettman, left, called yesterday's proposal a last effort to make a deal, but then rejected a...

Gary Bettman, left, called yesterday's proposal a last effort to make a deal, but then rejected a counter-offer from Bob Goodenow, right, that raised the ante and proposed punitive luxury taxes for big spenders. (Photo illustration)

BRUCE GARRIOCH -- Ottawa Sun

, Last Updated: 10:07 AM ET

A letter-writing campaign last night between the NHL and the NHL Players' Association could spell the end of the season.

League commissioner Gary Bettman and NHLPA executive director Bob Goodenow got into an ugly exchange of "final" offers in a series of letters last night.

While several members of the union were incensed with the fact Goodenow and the executive committee have agreed to negotiate a salary cap, it might not be enough to keep Bettman from cancelling the season today.

"This is going to go right down to the wire and it could go either way," a league source told the Sun last night.

What developed with the deadline approaching was better than any drama on Broadway:

- First, the league offered the NHLPA a $40-million (all terms US) cap without a link to revenues Monday in Niagara Falls, N.Y. The union came back with an offer of $52-million, which was rejected by the league.

- Last night, Bettman, in a letter to Goodenow, responded with a proposal of $42.5 million that was "non-negotiable." Goodenow fired back, in a letter, moving his number to $49 million. That was rejected by Bettman, in another letter, at 11 p.m. The NHLPA answered at 1 a.m. by saying it would have no further response.

What happens next? Only Bettman knows for sure, but a league source said the union would settle on a $45-million cap if the NHL shows a willingness to negotiate.

If a deal is completed, Bettman will end the 154-day lockout and announce at a 1 p.m. press conference today in New York that the season will begin in early March. Otherwise, the plug will be pulled and there will be no Stanley Cup winner for the first time since 1919.

Some players were so mad at Goodenow, he was forced to hold a conference call with representatives yesterday to explain the union's position and claimed "we had to do this to get this deal done."

"Our whole stance throughout this lockout has been that we're not going to accept a cap. Then, I wake up this morning to word that we've made an offer of a $52-million cap," said free-agent defenceman Curtis Leschyshyn.

"I know it's all part of negotiating and both sides want to see what they're willing to give and take. But, if this is the case, this could have gotten done in September. I guess we're just going to have to wait to see how this plays out.

"What bothers me is that we've basically been negotiating against ourselves throughout this whole process. I guess we're acting for the good of the game. This just shows that we want to get back to playing."

And there's a lot of pressure on Bettman to get a deal done as well, from teams like the Maple Leafs, Red Wings, Avalanche, Rangers and Flyers, all of whom were demanding that the league sweeten the pot so the season can be saved.

Many teams were huddled last night trying to make preparations in case the year is saved. The word is the 2004-05 campaign would start March 5 with a 28-game season, following a seven-day training camp and one exhibition game.

"It's a lot to do in a very, very short time. I'm just not optimistic," Senators owner Eugene Melnyk told a Toronto radio station.

A source said players in Europe were already packing their bags to come back to North America because they felt confident a deal was at hand.

"I'd be upset if we took a cap, but I'm not speaking for everybody. I just think a lot of guys would be disappointed," said Senators centre Bryan Smolinski from Detroit. "But we're trying to do what it takes to get a deal done. Hopefully, this works and we can get back to playing hockey."


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