NHL Commissioner Gary Bettman said last night he is prepared to announce the cancellation of the hockey season this weekend if the owners and players' union do not have an agreement by then.
"It is clear to me that if we're not working on a written document memorializing an agreement this weekend, I don't see how we can play any semblance of a season," Bettman said in a hastily called news conference in Toronto last night.
_____ From The Post _____ • Mario Lemieux and Wayne Gretzky take part in six-hour meeting between NHL and players' union but no deal is reached.
• Commissioner Gary Bettman officially cancels the NHL season.
• There is speculation about where the league goes from here and whether it can survive.
• Michael Wilbon: There's no question the league and its owners won this particular battle.
• The cancellation may work to the Capitals' advantage in time.
• Q&A: What's next?
_____ On Our Site _____ • Audio: The Post's Thomas Heath discusses the end of the season.
• Video: Bettman announces the cancellation of the season.
• What's Your Opinion?
_____ Lockout At a Glance _____ • NO SEASON: The NHL season was canceled Feb. 16 over a lockout that started before training camps opened last September. It's the first major North American sport to lose an entire season to a labor dispute.
• THE REASON: The NHL and the players' association couldn't resolve how to split revenues from the $2 billion industry. The league demanded a salary cap, but by the time the players agreed to that, it was too late to work out how much the cap would be.
• WHAT'S NEXT?: The NHL could seek the declaration of an impasse, which allowing it to implement its last offer, open training camps in September and invite players back. The players' association would likely respond with a strike.
If a last-minute deal is reached, Bettman said, there would be a 28-game regular season and the playoff structure would be preserved.
Bettman's news conference followed a secret meeting in which the NHL made a last-minute compromise to the NHL Players Association in which the owners said they would accept the union's Dec. 9 proposal, which called for a 24 percent across-the-board rollback on all existing player contracts and a system that taxes teams for exceeding payroll thresholds. But the owners' offer called for the proposed collective bargaining agreement to automatically revert to a strict salary cap limiting payrolls if the union's payroll tax fails to adequately address the salary issue.
NHLPA Executive Director Bob Goodenow followed Bettman's news conference with one of his own last night, in which he called the league's latest offer a "transparent attempt" to impose a salary cap.
Goodenow agreed that time was running out.
"The weekend would be a drop-dead point," Goodenow said. "Time is so short. If there will be an agreement, the only way to come about it is to keep talking."
Also included in that six-year offer, which could be reopened by the union after four years, was a profit-sharing plan that would allow the players' union to evenly split revenue over a negotiated level with the league.
The union rejected the NHL's offer but invited Bettman and his staff to stay in Toronto last night for further talks. The union opposes any fixed limits on salaries and any system that ties salaries to league revenue.
The owners locked out the players Sept. 15, claiming the league lost $500 million over the last two season. The union has said the NHL's finances aren't as bad as the league depicts.
The lockout reached its 147th day yesterday, resulting in the cancellation of 813 of the 1,230 regular season games, as well as the All-Star Game that would have been played in Atlanta this weekend.
Bettman last night gave little hope of reaching an agreement in time to salvage the season.
"We don't seem to be able to come up with middle or common ground or third way to do this," Bettman said. "There are certain things we need in a collective bargaining agreement. . . . The system we are talking about are systems where we know what we can afford to pay. We don't want a future where we are spending more than we can afford. We've had enough of that."