Flame fearing worst

RANDY SPORTAK -- Calgary Sun

, Last Updated: 9:03 AM ET

Talking from across the Atlantic, Andrew Ference's disappointment blazed through.

"It's embarrassing to be part of this chapter in hockey history," said the Calgary Flames defenceman, who's currently playing in the Czech Republic. "Who wants to be remembered with this kind of thing?"

This thing would be the possible meltdown of the NHL as we know it.

With both sides firmly entrenched in their position -- the league demanding a linkage of salaries to revenue and the players opposed to what they deem a salary cap -- the destruction of the 2004-05 season is creeping closer.

Unless there's a radical departure from one side in today's talks, which will bring league commissioner Gary Bettman and NHLPA executive director Bob Goodenow back into the fray, it's only going to get worse.

Seeing as yesterday's proposal from the league, rejected by the players within a few hours, included yet another version of a salary cap, the heels are being dug in further.

Since there's no reason to believe it won't be the same old song and dance next fall, a year from now or even longer, players accept their days on the NHL train may be gone forever.

"You've got to look at worst-case scenarios and if the league and the players can't come to a decision in the next couple of years, who knows, I could lose my job," Ference said.

"It's not like I'm a perennial all-star or anything. I'm a lower-end-of-the-pay-scale guy. If my job gets lost, I can't say anything other than, 'That's life.' I can live with it. I won't be happy, but I can live with it. If that's the reality of the situation, so be it."

Tough talk, yes, but Ference's opinion is what so many players are feeling.

If nothing else, the lockout has galvanized many of them them to the point they're openly admitting a willingness to never go back as long as the league demands a cap.

"There will be a lot of guys playing in other leagues, I guess," Ference said of what he can envision happening with a second season or more seemingly in jeopardy.

There certainly were some new wrinkles in the owners' offer provided yesterday. Among them was a profit-sharing proposal using third-party auditing; a reduction in free-agency age to 30, with a provision to drop even further to 28; the use of payroll taxes; and a statement player contracts were guaranteed.

The killer for the union, however, is the stipulation player costs not be more than 55% of league revenue and a cap of $42 million US.

"It's a low, hard cap and all along we've said a salary cap is not going to be a starting point. It's not getting through," said Ference. "It doesn't matter how great the surroundings are if there's a great big red eye in the middle."

Make that a black eye that's going to hinder the professional game greatly unless something unexpected happens and both sides agree on how to become partners.

And even with that, the pie that was more than $2.1 billion last year is going to shrink more and more the longer the lockout lasts.

"That's one of the risks," Ference said.


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