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Done and Done

Hopes soared when NHL players and owners reconvened soon after the season was canceled. But the commissioner was not in a conciliatory mood

Like Generalissimo Francisco Franco, the NHL season is still dead.

Of course, when Chevy Chase made the Spanish dictator a running joke on Saturday Night Live 30 years ago, it was hilarious. When NHL Players Association senior director Ted Saskin spoke on Saturday about how a season pronounced dead 72 hours earlier would really, really not happen, no one was chuckling. ("It was apparent ... the parties were much farther apart than everybody thought," Saskin said.) For three hopeful but ultimately cruel days after commissioner Gary Bettman announced the season's cancellation, those who care about the game endured what Dallas Stars defenseman Chris Therien described as "a circus act." Send in the clowns, and call in Wayne Gretzky and Mario Lemieux, too. Even with those stars turned owners entering the final discussions, the NHL and the NHLPA wound up shoveling more dirt on the game. The situation was absurd, a league so feckless it had to cancel a season twice.

The 13th-hour talks initiated by the NHL represented a win-win situation for the owners. After a few days of back-channel chatter--among players, general managers, owners and agents trying to foster a consensus--the union anticipated a compromise in the neighborhood of a $45 million salary cap. Instead the NHL gobsmacked the players by reiterating its $42.5 million cap while hardening its positions on peripheral issues like salary arbitration, qualifying offers for free agents and entry-level contracts.

This was a bold move to extract a favorable deal from the union, whose nerves and solidarity had started to fray. Bettman's Feb. 16 cancellation had sparked rancorous debate on the union's internal website between hard-liners and those eager to settle. A few players, notably Blues defenseman Chris Pronger, called the NHL directly on fact-finding missions to find out what it would take to get a deal done.

Bettman's maneuver was also a long shot, one that probably mistook the players' conciliation for desperation, their concern for the game for capitulation. But even as the NHL's gambit proved futile, it underlined the lingering ideological differences between the league and the players, which had seemed to vanish when union head Bob Goodenow dropped his long-stated objections to a salary cap the previous weekend.

A reemphasized schism only bolsters the NHL's case if it decides to declare an impasse and bring in replacement players for the 2005-06 season, steps it would probably have to defend before the National Labor Relations Board or in the courts. The prospects of a negotiated settlement leading to an on-time start next fall appear bleak. Gone is the traction the talks suddenly gained when Bettman dropped his demand for a fixed link between payrolls and revenues and Goodenow came off his anticap stance--ridiculously belated moves that twice last week made a deal seemed imminent. When the NHL and the players came in with "final" offers of caps of $42.5 million and $49 million, respectively, on Feb. 15, the sides seemed to be haggling over a price.

Even as Bettman killed the season the next day, he dropped hints the NHL might revisit a deal. An agreement seemed within reach once Gretzky, the Phoenix Coyotes managing partner, and Lemieux, the Pittsburgh Penguins owner-forward (who had actually locked himself out), were asked by the players' association to join the talks. As an agent told SI, "Wayne doesn't get involved in something if it's doomed to fail. Why would he waste bullets if he couldn't be a difference maker, if he didn't come to the table with something in his back pocket?" Gretzky was one of the voices in the under-the-radar murmurings last week; once Bettman lifted the gag order on contact between management and players, Gretzky spoke often with Coyotes star Shane Doan. But ultimately the Great One had nothing to offer but a statement that described Saturday's last-ditch meeting as "constructive."

That had to be a news flash to the players' association, which must now redefine or even reconsider its commitment to Goodenow and its bargaining positions. Detroit Red Wings captain Steve Yzerman told SI on Sunday he's confident that once Goodenow gets a chance to fully explain his position, players will support him. But Goodenow's backing appeared shaky last week. One agent said, "There were players upset when Bob abandoned [his resistance to] the cap without informing them first. But when he introduced a cap and then wasn't able to close a deal, they were really frustrated."

They have plenty of time to cool off now that the 2004-05 season remains, like Franco, dead, still.

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