Milbury: 'Best deal has already been offered'

Originally Published: February 17, 2005
ESPN.com news services

NEW YORK -- Day 155 of the NHL lockout was stunningly Day 1 of the offseason.

Now the fear is the fight over a new deal between owners and players will just start over from scratch. Everything offered has been pulled back, any softening of the positions has been lost.

MORE FROM ESPN.COM
Season canceled
The NHL canceled what was left of the season Wednesday after dueling last-minute offers were rejected. Story
• Bettman-Goodenow letters
• Sports-world reactions

ESPN Motion
• Bettman cancels season ESPN Motion • Goodenow's view ESPN Motion • Gretzky speaks ESPN Motion

ESPN Radio
• Hull: One player's take 
• Cowherd: Better off dead 

Drehs: A mortician in Manhattan
Gary Bettman guided the NHL through 11 seasons of growth. On Wednesday, he brought a 12th to its death. Story

Cox: Perfect opportunity
Sure, it's a dubious time for the NHL. But canceling the 2004-05 season is the best thing Gary Bettman could have done. Story

Ratto: Perfect Timing
Not only couldn't they figure out how to solve their own problems, but NHL owners also couldn't figure out how to cancel the season correctly. Story

Ratto: No pain, no gain
Those who caused the NHL to cancel the season are the ones who seem to be suffering the least. Story

Burnside: What's next?
A canceled season leaves many questions, but are there any answers? Story

Burnside: Wave of disappointment
If there was one common emotion after the cancellation of the 2004-05 season, it was a feeling of regret. Story

Burnside: Collateral damage
The owners and players aren't the only ones affected by the cancellation of the season. Story

Johnson: The Great White Disillusionment
Sure, hockey is Canada's game. But when it comes to the NHL lockout, Canadians are fed up. Story

SportsNation
• Chat wrap: ESPN analyst Bill Clement Full transcript Insider
• Are you a hockey fan? When the NHL comes back, will you? Vote
• Who's right? Who's wrong? Tell us what you think! Mailbag

One canceled season could easily become two if cooler heads don't prevail.

Late Thursday, rumors swirled that maybe there was still a chance to save the season.

"I hear some rumblings ... that owners and players are trying to make an attempt to get back to the bargaining table, but it's got to occur today, tomorrow, or the next day," agent Pat Brisson told The Associated Press.

Both sides said there have been no talks since commissioner Gary Bettman and players' association executive director Bob Goodenow traded proposals Tuesday.

"We have heard a lot of the rumors that are out there, but we have had absolutely no contact with the union since Bob's final letter," NHL chief legal officer Bill Daly told the AP. "Unless or until we hear from the union, the rumors are meaningless."

However, when asked if the NHL would be open to meetings that could reverse the cancellation of the season, Daly told The Hockey News: "I would love to have that problem."

The Hockey News cited sources that said Wayne Gretzky and Mario Lemieux are trying to work together to get a deal done. Gretzky downplayed the report during a radio interview with the Fan 590 in Toronto.

"To say Mario and I had a conversation to stir up the conversations and talks again, that's just not true," Gretzky said.

And it appears that no other scenarios could un-cancel the season, either.

"The players we've spoken to understand the basis upon which Gary canceled the season, and as a result there's no expectation among our membership that there would be any further negotiations," NHLPA senior director Ted Saskin told The Associated Press.

There was no progress made through the first five months of the lockout, but breakthroughs were achieved just days before the season was lost.

The dispute has always been about a salary cap, but even after owners and players made concessions in an effort to save the season, it all fell apart over dollar figures.

"We didn't make good history, but we made history another way," Dallas forward Bill Guerin, a member of the players' association executive committee, said while making the radio rounds Thursday. "We have to be the first union to offer a salary cap and get shot down."

All along, the union swore it would never accept a cap -- but that was before the NHL dropped its insistence on having a link between league revenues and player costs.

A wall was knocked down, but it was too late. Once the sides started trading numbers, it became clear they weren't close enough to a deal. Even though the league's cap offer of $42.5 million per team was only $6.5 million less than the players' proposal, it proved to be a gap that couldn't be bridged.

"I was expecting to hear there wasn't a season for the past six weeks," Rangers forward Bobby Holik said. "I hope the people in these negotiations realize they're not that far apart. Let's not blame one or the other. The blame is collective, and let's get working on a new day."

The NHL's partnership with NBC will still be there when play resumes. The revenue-sharing deal in which the network is not even paying rights fees is for two years, with the network holding the option for another two.

That won't start until hockey is played.

"We were prepared for any eventuality," NBC Sports spokesman Mike McCarley said. "We have profitable replacement programming in place."

And that is a big problem the NHL will be forced to face for as long as the league is shut down, and then even more once it is back in operation. Hockey was already a distant forth among the United States' four major sports leagues, and now it could disappear south of the Canadian border, where 24 of the 30 teams are based.

"It's done with, we'll never get the season back. It will probably lower the fan base," New York Rangers defenseman Tom Poti said. "Everybody's going to suffer a lot from this lockout. I don't see it starting in the fall. There's no pressure to get it done."

For now, many will look ahead to this spring's world championship tournament in Austria. Usually, only players on teams eliminated from the Stanley Cup playoffs had the opportunity to take part -- but many stars might be craving a competitive game.

Over 300 of the 700-plus players have spent at least part of the season in European leagues, and that would be an option again in the fall.

Bettman didn't rule out the use of replacement players for next season if a deal with the union can't be worked out. He said the NHL plans to have hockey next season, and all options will be explored by the board of governors when it convenes soon.

Milbury called some of his players Wednesday night and urged them to push the union leadership to make a deal.

"This is not about a bluff," Islanders general manager Mike Milbury said. "The best deal has already been offered. The sooner they come to the conclusion that they need to make a deal to move this business forward, the better off we all are."

Information from The Associated Press was used in this report.

ALSO SEE