Federal mediators find no key to NHL lockout

Posted: February 14, 2005

Not even federal mediators were able to stop the doomsday clock as it ticked closer to canceling the National Hockey League season.

Representatives from the league and the NHL Players' Association were in Washington yesterday for an emergency meeting with federal mediators in an attempt to save the season. But the meeting failed to bring about progress, both sides confirmed.

Either tomorrow or Wednesday, NHL commissioner Gary Bettman is expected to formally announce that he is canceling the 2004-05 season.

No professional league in North America has ever canceled a season because of a labor dispute.

"I don't think a cancel announcement would be made as early as [today]," Bill Daly, the NHL's chief legal officer, said yesterday afternoon. "There are still some things we're waiting on."

As for the meeting in Washington . . .

"It's a federal-mediator conference, and we're bound by law not to comment on it," said Ted Saskin, senior director for the union.

Daly and Saskin confirmed yesterday that no negotiations had taken place over the weekend and that neither side expected any offers or counteroffers. Saskin and lawyer John McCambridge represented the NHLPA at yesterday's five-hour meeting. Daly and lawyer Bob Batterman represented the league.

Bettman had promised Wednesday that unless the framework for a new collective bargaining agreement was on paper by the end of the weekend, he would cancel the season.

All that remains is for him to announce it. A Board of Governors meeting is not required, although it is expected that once the season is canceled, the board will convene in New York to discuss the NHL's options for 2005-06. That meeting could come at week's end or next week.

There were rumors that the union was prepared to give the league a counterproposal that was a hybrid of its Dec. 9 proposal and the league's Feb. 2 proposal.

"The union has not made another offer and, as far as we know, they are not interested in any hybrid model," Daly said.

Added Saskin: "There are no discussions on any counterproposal."

"Both sides said they weren't picking up the phone and, as far as I know, that hasn't changed," said goalie Robert Esche, the Flyers' player representative.

Esche said the conversations now among NHL players are not about the lost season, but about what playing prospects might remain in Europe and how many NHL players might be selected for the World Championships this spring in Vienna, Austria.

Esche, who did a very good job in goal for the United States last fall in the World Cup of Hockey, said he was anxiously awaiting a call from USA Hockey telling him that he had been selected to play in the World Championships.

"I'd love to play in the World Champs," he said. "I am not going to lobby for it, but I am hoping to get a call. I've tried to stay in shape. It's going to be a great tournament, and the thing about the World Champs is that there is no pressure. I really hope they consider me."

Saving the best for last. Lost in all the conference calls of the last week was Bettman's backhanded compliment to the players regarding their resolve to lose a year of pay over a philosophical disagreement.

"I respect our players," Bettman said last week. "They're prepared to forgo $1 billion in salaries this year alone and maybe hundreds of millions - if not a billion - next year. You've got to respect that. I don't always understand it, but I respect it."

Contact staff writer Tim Panaccio at 215-854-2847 or tpanaccio@phillynews.com.

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