Struggle ends

By this weekend, the NHL will either have a surprising deal that saves the hockey season or a dubious place in history.

The long-awaited deadline is set. If the league and the union can’t hammer out a new collective bargaining agreement in this last round of talks that started secretly in Toronto on Wednesday, commissioner Gary Bettman will pull the plug.

The NHL would then have the distinction of being the first North American sports league to lose an entire season to a labor dispute. Bettman would rather not have that mark on his record, but said the right deal is necessary in order for the NHL to survive.

"This has just been a very difficult, frustrating process and again we’re sorry we have to go through it," he said. "But we had no choice."

The lockout reached its 147th day Wednesday. If a deal is reached, Bettman said, there would be a 28-game regular season and the 16-team playoff structure would be preserved.

"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. "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."

Bettman and NHL chief legal officer Bill Daly visited the players’ association office in Toronto. The union made it clear that it wasn’t going to initiate new talks this week, so the league took a new offer to the players.

It wasn’t received well.

"It’s really not whether there’s a better deal or a worse deal, it’s the right deal, it’s the fair deal," NHLPA executive director Bob Goodenow said. "We’ve always been focused on those principles."

The NHL handed over a brief concept that it called "a compromise proposal."

It presented the idea that a new deal be made using the players’ association’s proposal from Dec. 9 that included a luxury-tax system and a 24 percent salary rollback on existing contracts.

But if any one of four financial conditions set forth by the league were exceeded, then the NHL’s salary-cap offer from last week would go into effect the following season. Teams would then be forced to spend at least $32 million on player costs but no more than $42 million, including benefits.

"The NHL delivered a one-page concept to us which they tried to suggest represented a compromise," Goodenow said. "The league’s proposal was a transparent attempt to impose on our Dec. 9 proposal the effects of their twice-rejected Feb. 2 triple-cap proposal."

Goodenow said that one of the four limits would immediately be exceeded if this deal was put in place, and others could be easily reached.

The union asked Bettman and Daly to stay in Toronto through Thursday for negotiating sessions. The men who hold the season in their hands went out for dinner Wednesday and planned to talk again.

Goodenow said they would try to figure out new ways to get over the main stumbling block of a salary cap, but added that the players’ association won’t hand over a new proposal Thursday.

"We’ll have conversations about these difficult areas and see if we can’t come up with an idea, a framework or a mechanism for some common ground," Goodenow said. "The prospect that we’d be able to conclude an agreement by the end of the weekend is very daunting.

"It is possible, but I don’t want to discuss the levels of probability."

The lockout has wiped out 813 of the 1,230 regular-season games, as well as this weekend’s scheduled All-Star game. If the season is canceled, there is no telling when there will be NHL hockey again.

"The deal can only get worse, from a technical matter and as an economic matter, the longer we go without a new deal," Bettman said. "That’s not a threat, that’s simply the reality of where we find ourselves."

It was believed that there had been no contact between the sides since last Friday when talks broke off after three straight days of meetings.

The bulk of the negotiations since mid-December were conducted mostly by Daly and players’ association senior director Ted Saskin.

Bettman and Goodenow were invited by the union back to the table last week for two days of talks after the union rejected the league’s previous proposal.

The NHL has been intent on making a deal that provides a link between league revenues and player costs. The players’ association has steadfastly refused to accept a salary cap as a solution to the stalemate.

"We really gave this our best shot," Bettman said. "This is what we really believe we need."