tampabay.com

One day left to save NHL season; it's unlikely

Commissioner has a news conference set for Wednesday to pull plug unless deal happens today.

By TOM JONES
Published February 15, 2005


Tim Taylor never thought it would get to this. The Lightning forward figured he would be playing hockey right now, helping his team defend the Stanley Cup.

Even as this NHL lockout dragged into December, then January and, now, February, Taylor held out hope. Just the other day, he told his wife he would not be able to go to any more of their daughter's hockey games because he would have to head back to work.

He just knew there would be an agreement.

But when reached Monday night at his home in Stratford, Ontario, the Lightning player representative sounded stunned. He sounded like a man who has realized the fuse on the NHL season is about to run out and he still can't believe the league is about to explode.

"I'm in uncharted waters now," Taylor said. "I honestly thought this would get done. Now? I just don't know. It doesn't look good."

The death march on the 2004-05 NHL season has been painfully slow. But finally, there does appear to be an end in sight.

Commissioner Gary Bettman has called a Wednesday news conference where, barring something unforeseen, he will send the NHL into dubious history. At the Westin Hotel in New York's Times Square, Bettman likely will drop the ball on the season, making the NHL the first North American sports league to wipe out an entire season because of a labor dispute.

Though months of negotiations failed to produce an inch of common ground, the sides appear to be making a last-ditch effort. It was believed Bettman planned to hold a news conference Tuesday, but postponed it a day when the sides decided to meet again.

NHL executive vice president Bill Daly and NHLPA senior director Ted Saskin met Monday night at an undisclosed location but reported no progress. Bettman and union chief Bob Goodenow were not part of the meeting.

Though an 11th-hour deal appears unlikely, Taylor thinks the sides must reach an agreement.

"It has gone on too long," Taylor said. "We're all losing here: players, owners, fans, everyone. A deal has to be done. There's too much at stake. The future of the sport is at stake. We have to find a solution."

While everyone agrees the cancellation of the season could do irreparable harm, neither side seems willing to compromise. The NHL continues to push for a salary cap and the players remain dead set against it.

"The league is set on a hard cap, and it is unfortunate of them to think time will help the cause ... we're not budging," Markus Naslund of the Canucks told a Vancouver radio station (1040-AM) Monday. "It is a shame a big operation like the NHL cannot trust each other, and they think a partnership should start with a cap, which is not acceptable."

Senators owner Eugene Melnyk challenged the union to turn the owners' most recent offer over to a full union vote. The owners offered to go with the union proposal from Dec.9 that featured a luxury-tax system and an immediate 24 percent rollback on all existing contracts.

The CBA, however, would kick over to the owners' salary-cap proposal of Feb.2 if it were deemed the union's method was not working.

But the players insist the "triggers" were unrealistic and the owners' salary-cap proposal would kick in immediately. They see no reason for a vote until Goodenow recommends one. Though he might not have 100 percent support from the union, Goodenow, it is believed, is supported by most of the union.

On the other side, it appears Bettman has full support of the owners, who have given him a mandate of nothing less than a salary cap. Bettman already has authority from the owners to cancel the season.

The only hope that stands between now and the cancellation of the season is whatever conversations are going on behind closed doors.

"It's upsetting not knowing exactly what's going on," Taylor said. "The whole thing is just so disappointing. I'm really hoping everyone comes to their senses and realizes we can't lose a season."

Any season - 28 games, a playoff tournament, anything - would be better than losing the whole season, Taylor said.

"At least we would be playing," he said. "But whether we come back now or next season or whenever, we're going to have a lot of work to do with the fans. Even if we come back now, I think the owners and the players are going to have to spend the summer doing a lot of PR work with the fans because this should not be happening.

"It's a shame that we're not playing now. I honestly thought we would be."