Dug in or dug out?

ROBERT TYCHKOWSKI -- Edmonton Sun

, Last Updated: 1:28 PM ET

2000 -- Here's where we find out what Gary Bettman is really made of. The NHL's commissioner and owners have the NHLPA right where they want them - scared, confused, desperate, embarrassed and ripe for the picking. Victory is theirs.

The only way the good guys can lose this thing is if they choke during today's emergency meeting in New York.

In a script that's right out of the mid-90s CFL, when the Ottawa Rough Riders were drafting dead guys and the Gliebermans were running a three-ring, fly-by-night circus in Shreveport, attempts are apparently being made to dig the NHL season out from under six feet of cold, hard dirt.

The players, reeling after their bluff got called and their hardline strategy blew up in their faces, are desperate to undo the damage any way they can.

"It appears that a lot of the players are really reconsidering their positions,'' Edmonton Oilers general manager Kevin Lowe said last night.

"But I don't know what that means or where it's going.''

It looks as though the PA is pulling an end-around on union chief Bob Goodenow, widely criticized for the way he handled these negotiations. (NBA commissioner David Stern called his work, "One of the most worst miscalculations in the history of sports''.)

FIRESTORM OF REPORTS

They've been meeting among themselves and setting up negotiating sessions that don't include him. In fact, a firestorm of reports last night said the season was all but saved: The Hockey News website reported that a deal had already been reached in principle for a $45-million salary cap and the season would likely be "uncancelled'' by tonight.

The NHLPA later denied the report but said there were indeed more high-level meetings scheduled today involving negotiating teams for the NHL and NHLPA - and possibly Wayne Gretzky and Mario Lemieux. When there's this much smoke, something is obviously burning somewhere.

"It's there. Things are going on,'' said Lowe. "But (team president) Patrick LaForge talked to the league earlier (yesterday) and they said they hadn't heard anything about starting up.''

If the reports are accurate, it's an absolute collapse that will put Edmonton right back on the endangered list.

OILERS BIT THEIR LIP

The Oilers bit their lip at a $40-million cap and would be stretched to the limit at $42.5 million, so $45 million is out of the question. And it would probably never pass - the small markets still hold the trump card in that all they need is eight votes to veto any deal.

If they can work out a favourable deal tomorrow, great. Sign it and announce that the NHL will start up again in September.

Give everyone in Canada the spring and summer to decompress and everyone in America time to realize that the season has actually been cancelled. Then start everything fresh in the fall. But don't save the season.

The damage to the league and the game has already been done and a 20-game season in empty arenas isn't going to fix it.

Bettman has to know that it would destroy the NHL's already fragile reputation to hold an international media conference announcing that $42.5 million is all they can live with and it's too late to have a meaningful season, then three days later say the season is back on and the cap is $45 million.

The only possible way they should even think about saving this season is if doing so means they can absolutely hammer the union on a new deal, if Bettman holds their head in the toilet and keeps flushing until they sign whatever he tells them to sign.

Bettman cannot move a penny off his final offer of $42.5 million and linkage has to be back on the table. Anything less and this is the biggest choke since Jean Van de Velde on the 18th at Carnoustie.

The only way the NHL should be playing hockey this March is if the NHLPA walks out of that meeting covered in toilet water.

Otherwise, see you in September.


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