Gretzky, Lemieux unable to revive NHL season

Hall of Famers join talks, but optimism disappears

Hockey

February 20, 2005|By Michael Russo | Michael Russo,SOUTH FLORIDA SUN-SENTINEL

FORT LAUDERDALE, Fla. - Yesterday was Groundhog Day in the NHL, and in a facsimile of Wednesday, there was no progress to report and the 2004-05 season remained ... canceled.

Proving untrue the old adage, "Any PR is good PR," the NHL and its players association looked foolish yesterday when one day after it appeared there would be an unexpected "un-canceling" of the season, even the Great One and Super Mario weren't enough to bridge the gap toward a new collective bargaining agreement.

After spearheading pressure from players toward the union, hockey legends Wayne Gretzky and Mario Lemieux, owners of the Phoenix Coyotes and Pittsburgh Penguins, respectively, were unable to revive negotiations during a 6 1/2 -hour meeting yesterday in New York.

"It became apparent as we got into the meetings that the parties were in fact much further apart than where everybody thought we were," NHLPA senior director Ted Saskin said. "It's 100 percent certain coming out of today's meeting that nothing will develop that could possibly impact the cancellation of the season."

NHL executive vice president Bill Daly said: "There remain significant differences that need to be discussed and resolved by the parties. ... While no new meetings are scheduled, we remain committed to continue working through the process until a new agreement can be reached."

Commissioner Gary Bettman canceled the season Wednesday after the NHLPA countered the league's $42.5 million salary cap proposal with a $49 million cap offer. Many thought if the gap could be bridged to $45 million, a deal could get done.

However, even though adversaries Bettman and NHLPA union chief Bob Goodenow sat out yesterday's meeting, sources say owners who didn't want to go to $42.5 million in the first place quashed the idea of going any higher.

The NHLPA planned to offer various concepts, sources say, but Saskin said the sides couldn't agree on several "systemic issues, so it was very clear exchanging proposals would have done nothing."

According to Saskin, the issues included the league's unwillingness to set a minimum payroll, decreased revenue sharing, a refusal to increase the upper limit of the cap over the six-year term of the collective bargaining agreement and "going backward in salary arbitration and qualifying offers."

Said Gretzky: "At the end of the meeting ... both Mario and I encouraged both sides to keep talking and for the betterment of the game and for the players and the owners and the fans, to get a deal done as quickly as possible."

Florida Panthers owner Alan Cohen said a patchwork agreement just to salvage a 28-game schedule was not the responsible thing to do.

"Do you ever hear the NFL owners complain?" Cohen said. "Nobody complains when you're healthy. We're not healthy. Nobody's going to say no to a deal when you're healthy. We can't give what we don't have no matter how hard we wish it."

Columbus Blue Jackets general manager Doug MacLean agreed that going past $42.5 million would be a stretch.

"These players deserve to be paid handsomely, but we brought in 850,000 fans last season and my owner [John McConnell] made less than a fourth-line winger [$600,000]," MacLean said. "That's not right. This is about fixing the game."

With hopes renewed Friday night, Mike Van Ryn pulled his hockey gear out from his garage. Last night, the frustrated Panthers defenseman put it away.

"I'm just happy I can sleep at night now because I know we did everything we could as a union to get a fair deal and we gave it our best shot," Van Ryn said.

The South Florida Sun-Sentinel is a Tribune Publishing newspaper.

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