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Veteran players see only gloom

TORONTO -- NHL veterans Chris Pronger and Jim McKenzie think
this lockout is far worse than the one that wiped out half a season
10 years ago.

They don't think they'll be playing again until 2006.

"I think you're looking at, at the very earliest, January '06
for the start of a season,'' said McKenzie, a forward with the
Nashville Predators.

Pronger is just as pessimistic.

"I think Jimmy hit it on the head. Probably December of '05 and
going into January '06 we're going to be in the same position we
are in now, trying to come to a resolution,'' Pronger said
Wednesday.

On Tuesday, the season moved a step closer to being lost when
the league rejected the players' association proposal and made a
counteroffer that was turned down by the union.

No new meetings have been scheduled, making it quite possible
the NHL will become the first North American sports league to
cancel a full season because of a labor dispute.

The major roadblock between the sides remains a possible salary
cap. The NHL wants a cap to achieve what it calls cost certainty.
The players' association says it will never accept that.

There might be a month left to salvage the season, but the sides
could be too far apart when it comes to a cap. The last NHL lockout
ended with a deal on Jan. 11, 1995, allowing for a 48-game season.

"It's very disheartening. The majority of the players that I've
talked to are worried about the fact that if there is no season,
how is the league going to be able recover?'' said Pronger, a St.
Louis Blues defenseman. "I hear Gary talk and say 'Oh, we'll be
able to recover.' He doesn't know.''

The union rejected NHL commissioner Gary Bettman's salary cap
proposal on Tuesday, ending the meeting that came on the 90th day
of the lockout.

The league proposal contained a cap, which, based on last year's
economics, would see team player payrolls range between a minimum
of $34.6 million and maximum of $38.6 million.

The league also revamped the union's 24 percent rollback offer
by significantly reducing the salaries of the richest players and
leaving others untouched. Players making less than $800,000 would
not have their salary decreased. Those making $5 million or more
would have 35 percent taken away from their existing contracts.

McKenzie's $700,000 salary wouldn't be affected, but Pronger,
the league's MVP in 2000, would see his $10 million salary reduced
to $6.5 million.

"If it weren't so disappointing it would be comical,'' McKenzie
said. "Basically, the league has taken our 24 percent rollback,
put it in their pocket and said 'Thank you' as it though it were
some kind of tip, and then said 'Now we'll negotiate and we'll go
back to getting this cap.'''

McKenzie thinks the league is trying to divide the union by
trying to woo the 349 players who make $800,000 or less.

"I'm surprised they didn't try it sooner. They're like 'Don't
worry about it. You're going to get your money,''' McKenzie said.
"In the end we're all going to end up losing on this anyway. The
first thing I thought of, because I played in New Jersey, is Scott
Stevens, Scott Niedermayer and Marty Brodeur, it's kind of like
saying 'Hey, thanks for winning that Cup and getting my name on it.
I'm going to throw you under the bus now.'''

McKenzie acknowledged he was tempted to accept a salary cap 10
years ago, but says he wouldn't have made the money he's made had
the union caved.

"I would not be where I am now if 10 years ago the guys had
given in. Ten years ago for me was tempting. I was sitting there
with a young family. They weren't in school so you got up everyday
and they are staring back at you. I was 22, 23 and didn't have a
lot saved,'' the journeyman enforcer said. "There was the shock of
being locked out and never thinking it would happen, and there was
a real chance that the season would have been canceled. We're
fortunate that it wasn't.''