Game's almost back on

BRUCE GARRIOCH -- Ottawa Sun

, Last Updated: 1:24 PM ET

The Great One and Super Mario were on the verge of performing a miracle last night. Hope was rekindled that the NHL season could be saved as a report surfaced on The Hockey News website declaring the 2004-05 season will be "un-canceled" today as a result of last-ditch efforts by Phoenix owner Wayne Gretzky and Pittsburgh's Mario Lemieux, who spearheaded an 11th-hour attempt to achieve what Gary Bettman and Bob Goodenow could not.

A league executive told the Sun that No. 99 and No. 66 wouldn't put their reputations on the line unless they felt they could seal the deal on a new collective bargaining agreement. But sources cautioned negotiations are not finished and there's "a lot of work to be done."

"I can tell you Wayne Gretzky and Mario Lemieux would not be in this meeting if they didn't feel there was a deal to be made," said the league source.

"Nobody can afford to go in front of the microphone again and say they weren't able to get a deal done. That would be embarrassing for the league and especially embarrassing for these guys. If Gretzky and Lemieux are going there, I'm quite confident you're going to see a deal in place by the end of the weekend."

It's believed the union is going to come armed with an offer of a hard salary cap in the $45.75-million (all figures US) range, with a punitive luxury tax for overspending. It's not known if Bettman, the NHL's commissioner, is willing to move off his last offer of a $42.5 million hard cap.

The NHLPA denied a deal was done. "That is simply not accurate," a source told Canadian Press in refuting The Hockey News report.

After mounting pressure from unhappy players and agents after Bettman announced Wednesday the season was dead, representatives of the Players' Association -- possibly without executive director Bob Goodenow -- could complete a deal today.

Asked by e-mail what the league made of all this talk the union was coming back with a proposal, NHL VP Bill Daly told the Sun yesterday: "Just that, at this point, the union hasn't presented anything to us yet."

Sources say the phones at the union office in Toronto have been ringing off the hook with the players urging Goodenow to make another attempt at a deal.

"This is not a shock," Senators centre Todd White, the club's NHLPA rep, said last night from his Ottawa home. "I was like a lot of hockey fans and I was really disappointed when the season was cancelled. Just from listening to all the rumours and the rumblings in the last couple of days, I was kind of hopeful that something could happen to get these two sides back together. I just think that it's good news that they're going to get back to talking."

While the league has been planning a 28-game schedule, there was talk that may be lowered to 24 or 26 games because of the time that has been wasted since Bettman announced the cancellation.

"That's great news that they're going to meet," said Phoenix defenceman Sean O'Donnell from his Los Angeles home. "I had hoped that when they cancelled the season they would find a way to negotiate again.

"I thought Gary Bettman really left the door open. I don't think (Bettman and Goodenow) would be going back to the table if they didn't think they had something to talk about. I'm sure there's already been calls between these two sides and faxes exchanged which are leading them to meet in the first place."

bruce.garrioch@ott.sunpub.com


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