Talks break off, NHL season all but dead

Posted: Tuesday, February 15, 2005

NEW YORK — With its do-or-die deadline come and gone and no deal in sight, the NHL circled Wednesday as the day it would call off what little was left of a decimated season, The Associated Press learned Monday.

A last-gasp meeting between the league and the players' union didn't produce any progress, and commissioner Gary Bettman planned to cancel the remaining games, a source close to the negotiations said on condition of anonymity.

The NHL announced, while the negotiating session was going on, that Bettman would speak at a news conference Wednesday in New York, but declined to give details.

NHL chief legal officer Bill Daly met one-on-one with players' association senior director Ted Saskin well into Monday night, but the league said in a statement that no progress was made. The union didn't offer any comment.

The latest meeting ended like so many others Daly and Saskin sat in on during this long process, that seemed destined to stretch well into the summer and maybe into next season.

It would become the first major professional league in North America to lose an entire season because of a labor dispute. The Stanley Cup has been awarded every year since 1919, when a flu epidemic canceled the finals.

But more than two-thirds of the season and the All-Star game already have been lost to a lockout that started Sept. 16. The major stumbling block to an agreement has been the league's insistence on a salary cap.

Bettman said the sides needed to start putting a deal on paper by last weekend if the NHL was going to hold a 28-game season and a full 16-team playoff. The regular season normally is 82 games.

''It is clear to me that if we're not working on a written document by this weekend, I don't see how we can play any semblance of a season,'' Bettman said last week. ''Obviously we will listen to everything the union has to say, but we've given all we can give and gone as far as we can go.''

Even a session with a federal mediator Sunday in Washington couldn't produce an agreement. But the league initiated more talks Monday, the source said.

Bettman said the 30 NHL teams need to have cost certainty to survive and the only way he could guarantee that was with a salary cap that linked league revenues to player costs.

The league has said teams lost $273 million in 2002-03 and $224 million last season, and an economic study commissioned by the NHL found that players get 75 percent of league revenues. The union has challenged those figures.

A cap was an automatic deal-breaker for the union even though it agreed that the financial landscape was flawed. The players' association contended that there are many other ways to fix it.

''There is no question the system has to change,'' said New Jersey Devils president Lou Lamoriello, who took part in earlier negotiating sessions. ''We just have to keep working to find a solution. It's unfortunate we have to come this.

''If the season does end, we can't stop. We have to continue working at this and get it rectified as soon as we possibly can.''

Monday, the 152nd day of the lockout, was to have been the last day of the All-Star break; the festivities in Atlanta were called off months earlier. So far, 824 of the 1,230 regular-season games have been lost.

''Everybody has to take responsibility,'' Lamoriello said.

The sides have traded proposals throughout the lockout, but the salary cap has always been the sticking point. Other issues such as arbitration, revenue-sharing, and rookie caps never reached the true negotiating stage because the sides couldn't agree on the big issue.

In recent days, the union and league seemed adamant that they wouldn't budge.

''We're done,'' Saskin said Thursday after talks broke off.

On Sunday, Daly said: ''We will not be reaching out to them.''

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