NEW YORK -- Straining the limits of credulity -- even for the bizarro world of the National Hockey League lockout -- the two sides managed late Saturday afternoon to cancel the 2004-05 season for a second time in four days.
"It's 100 percent certain coming out of today's meeting that nothing will develop that could possibly impact the cancellation of this season," NHL Players' Association senior director Ted Saskin said after the two sides met for 6½ hours in a Manhattan hotel and still inexplicably found a wide philosophical gap remained between themselves and NHL owners.
Don't hold your breath waiting for a third-time-is-a-charm attempt at saving what cannot be saved. As the saying goes, stick a fork in it. It's done.
The National Labor Relations Board, likely to be called on in the coming months to wade through the wreckage of these negotiations as the NHL attempts to declare an impasse and introduce replacement players, should levy fines against both sides for desecrating the corpse that was this season.
Even with the two most influential hockey figures of this generation, Mario Lemieux and Wayne Gretzky, at the table for the first time, the two sides could not get it right.
In the aftermath of Saturday's meeting, both sides took great care to praise the two hockey gods for their input and presence. Not much future in trampling on the holy. Yet it is clear the lack of understanding between the two sides rendered even the two finest playmakers of all time impotent to forge a deal. Perhaps had the two greats chosen to make their presence felt earlier in this five-months-and-counting ordeal things might have been different. But they didn't, and now the season is forfeit.
Lemieux and Gretzky, both widely rumored to be working the phones after Bettman canceled the season the first time on Wednesday, were invited to these rekindled talks by NHLPA president Trevor Linden. And it was Linden who was approached by the NHL's top negotiator, Bill Daly, about trying to resurrect the 2004-05 season Thursday night, setting the stage for what the hockey world rightly expected would be a Miracle Off Ice.
But given the slack-jawed look of the union's top people late Saturday afternoon, it appears there was a gross misinterpretation of what might happen in New York, at least on the players' side. Instead of arriving to find the league ready to negotiate a compromise somewhere between the league's final offer of a $42.5-million salary cap and the players' final offer of a $49-million salary cap with a luxury tax component, the players found the league simply ready to explain more fully its final offer.
"It became apparent as we got into the meeting that the parties were much further apart than everybody thought we were on Tuesday," NHLPA senior director Ted Saskin said. "There's far more than just a number that separates us."
"I think there was a misconception that the two sides were close," added Linden. "I think it frankly came from the side of ownership and certainly general managers and some players and fans and media. But I think it was crystal clear from our standpoint that we weren't [close] and that was evident today."
What seems crystal clear is that the players over-played their hand.
Yes, a group of owners hoped a deal could be done at around $45 million. But if the players took Daly's call to Linden as a sign that there was a shifting of Bettman's power base, then they miscalculated.
Although Bettman didn't help matters by intimating during his press conference Wednesday that the league might have considered a mid-40s cap, Daly's call to Linden had as much to do with apparent fissures within the union's membership as any change in attitudes among ownership. So the league reached out to the players thinking they were ready to either bring in a new proposal or look more closely at the owners' final offer. The players thought the opposite.
There was no proposal and when the players began to peel back the layers of the owners' offer, the less they liked the view.
"The bottom line is that our understanding was that this meeting was for them to come forward with a new proposal. But it never got to that point," Daly told the Canadian Press.
The players further exacerbated the situation by putting out a release Friday evening which implied the league had come to them looking to re-open talks. Media leaks soon followed that there was a deal, either done or on the verge of being so. Given that a number of owners were upset that Bettman had upped the league's final offer on Tuesday evening, from $40 million to $42.5 million, the early reports of a further giveaway reduced what little wiggle room the owners might have had.
"All the leaks in the press about a deal being done at $45 million. I don't know where they came from but they didn't come from us," Daly said.
Although Linden and the rest of the players' association insist they remain unified, Linden himself acknowledged calls from players who didn't want the players to attend Saturday's meeting.
"I've received several phone calls [from players] that urged us not to come. And there are certainly a lot of players that weren't happy with the position we took last week [in accepting a cap] and in an effort to get some sort of a deal we felt it was necessary," Linden said.
Regardless, there exists in this dispute a clear crisis of leadership.
Neither NHLPA executive director Bob Goodenow nor Bettman attended Saturday's meeting. It is a damning indictment of at least one of these men that even with negotiations in extra time and with Lemieux and Gretzky at the table, the one thing that both sides agreed on was that more could be achieved with them on the sidelines.
When word leaked out about Saturday's meeting, there was almost unanimous agreement throughout the hockey world that the two sides would not risk the public humiliation of failing to strike a deal twice in one week unless both sides were assured there was a framework.
Perhaps it was a case of willful blindness, hockey people looking at all the evidence and saying, surely they won't blow this again. Instead the only blindness was on the parts of the two sides.
If there is a lesson to be learned from the shambles of the post-cancellation cancellation it is that the two sides still know little about each other. But they'd better learn quickly if they hope to save 2005-06.
Scott Burnside is a freelance writer based in Atlanta and is a frequent contributor to ESPN.com.