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Hard to see how players can win this time

Last week in this space, Bruins president Harry Sinden said that even if a new collective bargaining agreement could be reached between National Hockey League owners and players, it would mean a mad scramble to put together a season. The Bruins, among many other teams, barely have anyone under contract and would have to hurry to sign players. The 30 clubs would have to rush to put together a viable schedule, would have to deal with immigration issues regarding non-Americans, and would have to organize travel plans.

It appears none of that is going to be necessary, though. Sure, when the sides met informally for nearly 10 hours in Chicago and Toronto last week, it opened a dialogue that has been largely missing since the lockout started Sept. 15. However, talk is cheap and nothing has changed. The owners won't take anything less than a salary cap, believing it's essential that salaries are tied to revenues, and the players say that if there's a cap, there's no deal. So they're all right back where they started. As Islanders general manager Mike Milbury said about an earlier bargaining session, they should've just saved the airfare.

Players Association executive committee president Trevor Linden, who initiated last week's meetings, isn't hopeful.

"It's crystal-clear what they want," Linden said. "It's all or nothing, and that's unfortunate. This is a critical point. If it goes past this, it could go on for a year from now. It's [commissioner Gary Bettman's] lockout, and we can only do so much."

It's at least a good sign that the union finally gets that point. It has no leverage. The players are going to end up with a cap, whether it be six days from now, six months from now, or two years from now. Now that they've realized that, what are they waiting for? The players clearly won the last round back in 1994-95; this time the owners will win. They won't settle for anything less. But the season is evaporating into thin air. Last week's meetings effectively put the final nail in the coffin.

"I hate to be the bearer of bad news, but I think things have gotten worse," said Sabres player representative Jay McKee. "Trevor came out of the meetings pretty sour. He feels the PA was insulted in a few ways."

Vincent Damphousse, vice president of the union's executive committee, was dismayed by the recent developments and feels they are ominous, not only for this year.

"It was clear before [last] week to me that we weren't going to have a season," he said. "I think the strategy from Day One was to force the membership to accept a deal that we don't want. They think in a long lockout they can do that, and it's unfortunate because we don't think it's going to happen.

"I think the guys will stay strong. Guys are willing to do a lot of things to get a fair deal for both sides. But we're not going to be forced into a corner. Obviously, we'll fight back.

"I'm convinced that guys will stay together. They'll go to Europe and play. There [are] already 350 guys there. I expect probably 50 more guys this year will go over and finish the season. There's going to be tons of guys who do that again next year. We're telling our guys that if you can find a job, go over, because there is nothing positive that came out of those meetings.

"Since Day One, [owners] wanted linkage with revenues. It's something that's a non-starter for us. We give them all the tools and a big rollback for them to set budgets and run their business on top of that. We're ready to do a lot of things but we're not going to run their business on top of that. I think it's up to them to look at their numbers and decide how much they want to pay the players. There's nothing in the offer that we gave them that forces them to pay more than they want."

That's the problem. The owners have never been forced to pay more than they want to. In fact, the league -- through Bettman -- wants to protect the owners from themselves. Until that day comes, it's Patriots, Celtics, and very soon, spring training.

Forsberg hit again
Injuries have been a problem for Avalanche star Peter Forsberg throughout his NHL career. And he couldn't escape getting hurt when he elected to play in his native Sweden this year. Forsberg, who was playing for his hometown Modo club, broke his left hand Thursday night during a contest against Linkoping when he collided with Red Wings prospect Johan Franzen. He had surgery and is expected to need two to three months of recovery time. Losing Forsberg put a damper on the return to the Modo lineup of Vancouver captain Markus Naslund, who was back for the first time since 1992-93 . . . It sounds as if retirement is a foregone conclusion for Red Wings captain Steve Yzerman, given the grim outlook for any semblance of a season. Everywhere he goes, he's dogged by the question of whether he'll hang up his skates. "I certainly don't see myself sitting out another year and a half and then trying to come back," he said. "I pretty much know what I want to do if we don't get back this year. I have to face the possibility that my career might have already ended. If I make that decision, I'd probably come out and just say it. I get asked almost every day, `Are you going to play? Are you going to play?' I wouldn't want that going on all the time." Last spring, Yzerman's season -- and perhaps his career -- ended with an injury when he was struck in the left eye area by a puck. He didn't want to go out that way. "I wanted to come back and redeem myself," he said. "Well, maybe for my own psyche. Maybe just so I'm satisfied. I was disappointed with the way I finished." Yzerman still suffers some aftereffects of the injury . . . Avalanche center Darby Hendrickson might not be able to play hockey right now, but he'll get a chance to talk about it. The Richfield, Minn., native will serve as an analyst for KSTC for Minnesota's wildly popular boys' high school hockey tournament in March. "I think it will be fun," said Hendrickson. "The state tournament is such a neat thing for myself and so many hockey people. I'm just excited to be a part of it." . . . Lightning star Brad Richards, who captured the Conn Smythe Trophy as playoff Most Valuable Player, had surgery last Wednesday in Philadelphia to repair a hernia. The tear in his lower abdominal wall required a 90-minute operation. He is recovering in his hometown of Charlottetown, Prince Edward Island, and should be healed in 6-7 weeks. "Hopefully, I could be ready to go by March 10," he said. "That's the date I'm looking at if we do happen to play this year. If we don't play, then I will have all summer to get ready." . . . Canucks goaltender Dan Cloutier has signed with the Austrian team Klagenfurter AC through the end of the year and will replace the injured Andrew Verner.

Cream of the crop
The NHL recently released its midterm rankings by Central Scouting on the top prospects for the next draft, whenever that may be. The draft is scheduled for June but will be held only if there's a collective bargaining agreement in place. To the surprise of no one, Rimouski center Sidney Crosby, who was a force along with linemate Patrice Bergeron during Canada's run to the gold medal in the World Junior tournament, was ranked No. 1 among North American skaters. Left wing Benoit Pouliot of Sudbury was second, followed by Owen Sound right wing Bobby Ryan. Rounding out the top five were defensemen Luc Bourdon of Val D'or and Jack Johnson of the US National Under-18 team. Among Europeans, Swedish center Anze Kopitar was at the top of the rankings. Czech forward Martin Hanzal was No. 2, followed by defensemen Jakub Vojta of the Czech Republic, Teemu Laakso of Finland, and Tomas Kudelka of the Czech Republic. The top-rated goaltender in North American is Carey Price of Tri-City. Second is Alexandre Vincent of Chicoutimi and third is Daren Machesney of Brampton . . . An informal group of past and current Carolina Hurricanes continues to skate together, hoping eventually it will mean something. "There's always hope," said Hurricanes player representative Kevyn Adams. "But it's looking like we're running up against a deadline. We're definitely down to the last few days. We're hoping for a miracle but the owners have to be willing to negotiate." . . . Rick Nash is playing in Europe, skating on a line with Bruins captain Joe Thornton for Davos of the Swiss Elite League, but he's still being thought of back in Columbus. The Blue Jackets are raffling off a Nash game-worn jersey from last season, with 100 percent of the sales going to the Red Cross tsunami relief effort. The raffle will run through Feb. 5; tickets are $25 apiece or five for $100 and can be purchased by calling 614-246-3200. At 19, Nash became the youngest player in NHL history to lead the league in goals. He was tied at 41 with Calgary's Jarome Iginla and Atlanta's Ilya Kovalchuk . . . Speaking of Thornton, through 38 games with Davos he had 54 points, 10 of them goals. Wonder how many he'd have if he were playing here.

Material from personal interviews, wire services, other beat writers, and league and team sources was used in this report. 

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