Players take wait-and-see approach to talks

LAKE PLACID, N.Y. With the NHL and its players returning to the bargaining table Tuesday in New York and with the league's board of governors also meeting this week, there is guarded optimism from some top American players that an end to the seven-month lockout could be within reach.

"I guess it's all about building momentum to something positive," said Philadelphia Flyers forward Mike Knuble, who said he's more hopeful of a settlement than he has been since the lockout began Sept. 16.

"You can't keep beating something down that's already been broken down," said Knuble, after the third day of training camp for the U.S. team that will compete in the World Championships beginning April 30 in Austria. "The point has been made and the damage has been done. Everybody's paid the ultimate price. It's all about timing, and this is the time that it needs to be done."

"I think everybody's optimistic, really," added Calgary defenseman Jordan Leopold. "Both sides are talking. Can't say that's a bad thing."

During Tuesday's meeting, the two sides are likely to discuss a concept floated by the union during the latter stages of their last meeting April 4 in Toronto. The union proposal calls for a floating team salary cap with a minimum and maximum range based on revenues. Owners are said to be amenable to the proposal, while believing the range between the floor and ceiling must be lowered from the players' original offering.

Based on the $2.1 billion in revenue from the 2003-04 season, the union was proposing a per-team payroll that ranged from a mininum of $30 million to a maximum of $50 million. There would also be a luxury tax component to the salary structure.

New Jersey defenseman Paul Martin said threats and empty promises throughout the negotiating process have made him reluctant to get too excited about this week's efforts. He, too, believes the timing is right for forward progress, but both sides have to set aside their own agendas.

"As long as they're meeting and discussing and talking, I'm for that," Martin said. "If everyone has the game of hockey in mind, something good will come from it."

"I've had so many ups and downs I elect to remain neutral on this," said veteran defenseman Aaron Miller. "Obviously, everybody hopes it can get resolved."

Dallas Stars captain Mike Modano, the oldest player on the U.S. World Championship team at 34, said he still thinks it will take a "monumental" shift in attitudes to get a deal done to save the start of the 2005-06 season.

"I don't think there's any light at the end of the tunnel," said Modano.

Many U.S. players said they were buoyed upon hearing the league's resolve to use replacement players next fall might not be as unified as was once believed.

The Toronto Maple Leafs are reportedly opposed to replacement players in part because one of their principal investors is a teachers' pension fund, and teachers are represented by one of Canada's most powerful unions. Commissioner Gary Bettman met with officials from the Leafs' parent company, Maple Leaf Sports and Entertainment, on Friday to discuss a range of issues related to the lockout.

Other big-market clubs are also reportedly reluctant to market replacement players, especially in traditional hockey markets like New York, Detroit and Philadelphia. As well, Wayne Gretzky, part-owner of the Phoenix Coyotes, was quoted in an Arizona newspaper saying he wouldn't want to coach a team of replacement players. Gretzky has long been rumored to be interested in taking over as the Coyotes' head coach when hockey resumes.

"It's comforting in a way to hear what Mr. Gretzky said," Martin said. "Wayne knows. He knows it just wouldn't be the same."

Leopold said fans he's spoken to in his home state of Minnesota won't support a team of replacement players.

"They don't want to watch second-rate players," Leopold said.

Modano said coaches he's spoken to don't want to coach replacement players.

"I think that was Gary's plan all along to put it out in the media and let the players think about it. He was trying to put the fear in the players," said Modano.

Pending the outcome of Tuesday's bargaining session, it's believed league powers will debate the use of replacement players at Wednesday's board of governors meeting. While this week promises to set the tone for either a possible deal or the increased prospect of using replacement players, one GM told ESPN.com he feels the real pressure point will come when the NHLPA hosts a massive players meeting May 24-26 in Toronto.

The general manager said players he's spoken to are anxious for a deal to be struck. If there isn't one in the offing, he feels that general meeting, which may attract upwards of 700 players, may force the union's hand in terms of getting a deal done.

Scott Burnside is a freelance writer based in Atlanta and is a frequent contributor to ESPN.com.