- The Washington Times - Sunday, February 20, 2005

NEW YORK — The NHL season is dead — again.

After 6 1/2 hours of negotiations, with Wayne Gretzky and Mario Lemieux at the bargaining table, talks broke down yesterday, leaving the already canceled season beyond saving.

“It’s certainly not going to be resurrected after today,” players’ association senior director Ted Saskin said. “It’s 100 percent certain coming out of today’s meeting that nothing could impact the cancellation of the season.”

Just three days after the season was called off because of the protracted lockout, the NHL and the union restarted talks at an undisclosed location in New York. Commissioner Gary Bettman and players’ association executive director Bob Goodenow weren’t in attendance, but two of hockey’s greatest stars were.

However, Gretzky, managing partner of the Phoenix Coyotes, and Lemieux, player-owner of the Pittsburgh Penguins, couldn’t help the sides bridge the gap over the salary cap.

“Mario and I were happy to be part of the process, and everyone seemed to work very hard together,” Gretzky said. “We had a constructive meeting, and we only hope they will continue meeting for the betterment of the NHL and its fans.”

On Wednesday, Bettman canceled the season, saying it was too late to play any semblance of a schedule. That made the NHL the first major North American sports league to lose a full season to a labor dispute. And now the focus shifts back to trying to reach an agreement as soon as possible so next season isn’t lost, too.

Gretzky and Lemieux were joined on the owners’ side by NHL chief legal officer Bill Daly and outside counsel Bob Batterman, while the union was represented by Saskin, director of business relations Mike Gartner, players’ association president Trevor Linden, vice president Vincent Damphousse and outside counsel John McCambridge.

“The talks were cordial and informative but revealed that there remain significant differences that need to be discussed and resolved by the parties,” Daly said. “No new proposals were made by either side. While no new meetings are scheduled, we remain committed to continue working through the process until a new agreement can be reached.”

Linden said Daly called him Thursday night and invited him back to the table. Some players urged Linden not to go, but the Vancouver forward gave talking another try.

“I know that today was not good,” Linden said “From both sides, this is not a good situation. It’s basically uncharted territory. Where we go from here? I don’t know if anyone is sure.”

Before Daly called Linden, there had been no official contact between the NHL and the players’ association since Tuesday night, when the sides traded what they said were final offers.

All proposals were rejected, and Bettman canceled the season at a press conference Wednesday.

“I hope all parties continue talking and come to a solution for the betterment of the game,” Lemieux said.

Bettman said in a letter to Goodenow on Tuesday that the league’s salary cap proposal of $42.5 million was as far as he could go and that there was no time or flexibility for negotiation.

Goodenow sent a letter back, proposing a soft cap at $49 million that could be exceeded by as much as 10 percent by teams twice during the course of the six-year deal.

It appeared there was momentum toward reaching a deal and the season had a chance to be saved, because the sides were only $6.5 million apart on their cap numbers. But talking ceased after each side sent two letters to the other on Tuesday night.

There were big breakthroughs Monday in Niagara Falls, N.Y., when the NHL agreed to drop its demand that player costs be linked to league revenues, and the union, in turn, came off its steadfast opposition to a salary cap.

Bettman said the NHL couldn’t afford the union’s final proposal and said if all 30 teams spent $49 million on player costs, then more money would be paid out to players than last season.

“I can’t see anything worse than what they put on the table today,” Saskin said yesterday.

The commissioner said that teams lost more than $1.8 billion over 10 years, the last time a collective bargaining agreement was reached. The previous lockout cut the 1994-95 season down to 48 games a team.

NHL clubs claim to have lost $273 million in 2002-03 and $224 million last season.

Bettman had said a deal would have to be in the drafting stages by the end of last weekend if there was going to be time to play a 28-game season and a standard 16-team postseason.

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