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NHL set to scrap season

Word from Bettman to come tomorrow

It's all over but the official announcement.

The National Hockey League will formally pull the plug on the 2004-05 season tomorrow at 1 p.m. when commissioner Gary Bettman holds a news conference at a Manhattan hotel.

Despite a last-minute meeting yesterday between Bill Daly, the NHL's chief legal counsel, and Players Association senior director Ted Saskin in Buffalo, it is believed that the league has already decided that no part of the season can be salvaged. Bettman said last week that a new collective bargaining agreement had to be completed by the weekend for any of this year's games to be saved.

Through yesterday, the NHL had lost 824 of 1,230 regular-season contests. It also lost the All-Star Game, which had been scheduled for this past Sunday in Atlanta.

The NHL is poised to make history in a dubious way. This will mark the first time a professional sports league in North America has shelved an entire season.

The league had hoped to hammer out a deal with the union in time to play a 28-game regular season that would have had clubs playing only conference games. The playoff format would have remained intact, with four best-of-seven series. Instead, no Stanley Cup champion will be crowned, for the first time since 1919, when a flu epidemic canceled the finals.

There was a glimmer of hope that the sides could bridge their differences when representatives from the union and league met in Washington Sunday with federal mediators. But after more than five hours, talks broke down and any optimism evaporated.

Daly, who has been an upbeat voice throughout the difficult times, sounded downright depressed when addressing the media last Thursday night. He, NHL outside counsel Bob Batterman, Saskin, and union outside counsel John McCambridge were the principals during meetings Wednesday and Thursday, and they were in attendance during the mediation attempt Sunday. Neither Bettman nor union head Bob Goodenow, who have been polarizing forces throughout negotiations, was in attendance.

The owners are insisting that they need a hard salary cap in order to make their economics work. The union has been vehement in its opposition to any system in which salaries are tied to revenues.

Bettman has said all along it wasn't about saving the season, but about a new system of doing business.

Now there apparently is no season left to save.

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