Bettman expected to pull plug soon
NEW YORK -- The weekend has arrived and the death watch on the NHL season has begun.
Commissioner Gary Bettman's deadline for reaching a deal with the players' association is rapidly approaching. If there's no agreement before Monday, he is expected to pull the plug on the season that never was.
When he would do that is anyone's guess, but it should come soon.
Representatives from several teams told The Associated Press on Friday they had not yet been given word or warning from the NHL to get ready for the cancellation of the season. They do expect notification from the league before such action is taken.
Bettman already has the authority to cancel the season. He hoped to make a deal this weekend that would allow for a 28-game schedule and a full 16-team postseason.
So the hockey world keeps waiting -- nothing new at all in the five-month lockout that so far has wiped out 824 of the 1,230 regular-season games. That number won't officially grow before Tuesday because the NHL was supposed to be holding its All-Star weekend in Atlanta.
But this weekend will be anything but a celebration. Barring a radical change in the philosophical positions of the sides regarding a salary cap, no deal will be reached and no hockey will be played.
The NHL would then gain the distinction of being the first major North American sports league to miss an entire season because of a labor dispute.
And if the atmosphere doesn't change, the stalemate could stretch well into next season -- that is, if the NHL doesn't impose its salary-cap system through the courts.
If that course is taken, then this season's lockout would likely turn into next season's strike while the NHL tries to reopen with replacement players.
"Our position has been very consistent throughout that the possibility of unilateral implementation and the use of replacement players, potentially, next season was not something that we were planning and not something that we were focused on," NHL chief legal officer Bill Daly said Thursday. "Our 100 percent focus was on negotiating a new agreement."
But Daly said many options would have to be considered if a negotiated deal can't be reached.
Players' association senior director Ted Saskin declined to comment on potential legal issues.
More than half of the 700-plus NHL players have spent at least part of this season in European leagues, but they would have several options next season -- go overseas or elect to cross the line to play in the new-look NHL that would have a link between league revenues and player costs.
With no season or playoffs to save, the next deadline would be in June, when the NHL usually holds its entry draft. If there isn't a collective bargaining agreement in place, there can't be a draft.
Since the prospect of losing an entire season wasn't enough to force anyone to give in on the critical issue of cost certainty, then it's hard to imagine the draft would push the NHL or the players' association over the edge, either.
The way things ended Thursday -- the second straight day of talks in Toronto -- it appeared neither side was ready to get back to the table anytime soon.
That round of discussions started Wednesday when Bettman and Daly asked players' association executive director Bob Goodenow and Saskin to meet with them.
The league then offered what it called a "compromise proposal" and laid out a deadline to save the season.
Neither action was very effective.
The plan set forth quickly was rejected by the union because it presented a way for the league to get its hard salary cap in very short order.
All that had to happen was for one of four financial limits to be exceeded, and the league's operating system would transfer from the union's luxury-tax offer to the NHL's cost-certainty proposal that was rejected twice before.
Of the four ways the cap could be triggered, Goodenow said one would kick in immediately and another was virtually certain. The other two wouldn't be hard to reach either, he said, especially if the owners who want the cap could manipulate their payrolls to get it.
Once that offer was turned down and not revisited Thursday, both sides dug in their heels and said they would not be reaching out to the other this weekend.
They were done, and the season seemed likely to follow.
Copyright 2005 by The Associated Press
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