Hopes dashed

MIKE ZEISBERGER -- Toronto Sun

, Last Updated: 9:31 AM ET

Wayne Gretzky and Mario Lemieux shut out in the same game? On the ice, it almost never happened.

In the board room, well, that's a different story.

Midway though a bleak afternoon in the Big Apple, the Great One and the Magnificent One emerged from a downtown Manhattan meeting knowing they had been blanked in their last-ditch efforts to help keep the sport they love from tailspinning into Armageddon.

"The disappointing thing is, both sides are working hard toward a resolution but remain (significantly) apart," a glum Gretzky told TSN last night after negotiations between NHL players and owners went nowhere.

Lemieux reportedly had a forlorn look on his face as he departed the procedings late yesterday afternoon.

"I hope all parties will continue continue talking and come to a solution for the betterment of the game," Lemieux said in a statement.

It was hoped that the presence of Gretzky and Lemieux, two of the greatest players ever to lace up a pair of blades, would be the recipe for a last-minute miracle that would save the NHL season.

But on this day, 99+66=A big fat zero.

And now, the season is officially over. Again.

"It was great that (Mario and Wayne) were there," said Vincent Damphousse, a member of the players' negotiating committee. "But we still have issues."

Three days after commissioner Gary Bettman stood at a podium at a downtown Manhattan hotel and told the world he was pulling the plug on the 2004-05 campaign, six hours of talks between representatives of the NHL owners and players resulted in no progress and increased animosity.

In fact, there is speculation that the warring sides actually took a step backward.

Not only did the owners refuse to budge from their demand of a $42.5-million US cap, they also rejected the union's notion that the cap ceiling might escalate through the duration of a possible agreement.

With the players having proposed a $49-million cap last week, it was thought the sides might find some wiggle room between the two numbers.

But the league refused to move off its stance, NHLPA president Trevor Linden said.

"It was crystal clear from our standpoint that we weren't (close to a deal) and that was evident today," Linden said, adding that many players were upset when union leadership agreed in principle to a cap last week.

The involvement of Gretzky, managing partner of the Phoenix Coyotes, and Lemieux, player/owner of the Pittsburgh Penguins, had spawned optimism when the two parties got together yesterday.

But if the efforts of those two Hall of Famers can't help bring a resolution to the lockout, what remaining options does the sport have?

Several players and agents, including Don Meehan of Newport Sports, are calling for mediation or arbitration in an effort to bring the two sides closer together.

It's becoming evident they can't do it themselves.

"It's laughable, but it's really not," Boston Bruins forward Brian Rolston said.

"Everybody is sick of it. At this point, just try to get something done for next season."


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