NEW YORK - Nearly five months into the NHL lockout, the players' association still won't accept the league's demand for a salary cap. The league says it's too late to talk about alternatives.
And now time is about to run out on the hockey season.
The union needed only a few hours Wednesday to reject the latest league proposal that would place minimums and maximums on what the 30 clubs can spend on player costs. That didn't quite put an end to the hope for hockey, but it sure pushed that prospect to the forefront.
"If we're trying to meaningfully and reliably reduce player costs, we believe there are a number of ways that you can do that and it's not only through a salary cap," NHLPA senior director Ted Saskin said.
The players' association invited the league back to the negotiating table for another meeting Thursday, but neither side showed any real hope that progress could be made now - even if NHL commissioner Gary Bettman and union chief Bob Goodenow are making a return to the talks.
Bettman and Goodenow haven't taken part in negotiations since Dec. 14, when the players' association rejected a counterproposal to an offer it made five days earlier. In the past two weeks, the sides held five small-group discussions without the leaders.
That hasn't helped move the process closer to a settlement, either.
"We're at the end time-wise in terms of being able to continue this process and still play games this season, so there's not a lot of room flexibility-wise," said Bill Daly, the NHL's chief legal officer.
It is unclear what will happen Thursday in New York when Bettman and Daly join Goodenow and Saskin. The players' association doesn't want a salary cap, and the NHL said there is no time to talk about something else.
"There isn't much in this offer that's attractive to us or that we consider fair or necessary for the sport," Saskin said. "I don't want to mislead anyone and suggest I'm optimistic at this point in time."
The way things are going, there might not be time for the sides to reach an agreement to save the 2005-06 season.
The sides met Wednesday for four hours in Newark, N.J., the fifth time in two weeks they've talked. The NHL is in danger of becoming the first major North American sports league to lose an entire season to a labor dispute.
"They asked for a meeting again tomorrow, and we'll see what they have to say," Daly said. "The proposal was put together with their interests in mind, what they've communicated to us across the table."
The lockout reached its 140th day Wednesday, and has forced the cancellation of 762 of the 1,230 regular-season games plus the All-Star game.
The NHL proposed a six-year deal that contained a cap that would force teams to spend at least $32 million on player costs but no more than $42 million - including benefits.
This offer will not be presented to the players for a full vote, since Saskin said it's nowhere near what the association is looking for.
"There hasn't been a change on what we recognize as being the critical issue," Saskin said.
Bettman has said that teams lost a total of more than $1.8 billion over 10 years and that management will not agree to a deal without a defined relationship between revenue and salaries.
Last season's average salary was $1.8 million, and the NHL wants to push that back with a salary cap. This offer would give players between 53 and 55 percent of league revenues.
An economic study commissioned by the NHL found that players got 75 percent of league revenues. The union has challenged many of the league's financial findings.
If a deal is reached in time for hockey to be played this year, the NHL proposed that players would still receive 53 percent of revenues generated from a full playoff schedule that would follow a shortened regular season.
Also included in the offer - which could be reopened by the union after four years - was a profit-sharing plan that would allow the players' association to evenly split revenues over a negotiated level with the league.
On Dec. 9, the players' association proposed a luxury-tax system with an immediate 24 percent rollback on all existing contracts. The NHL liked the idea, but called that offer a short-term fix.
That portion of the union's plan, however, was accepted and included in the league's new proposal.
An entry-level contract cap of $850,000 - including bonuses - also was proposed by the NHL. That would return the ceiling to that of the 1995 draft class. Last season, the cap on entry-level contracts was $1.295 million.
The four-year, two-way contracts would also cap bonuses for each year of the deals. The league has proposed giving its own bonuses to entry-level players who finish in the top five in voting for the Hart, Norris, Vezina and Selke awards - including $500,000 for winning each award.
Players would gain unrestricted free agency at 30 instead of 31, starting with the 2006-07 season. That age would drop to 28 if the NHL elects to eliminate salary arbitration during the course of the deal.
The minimum salary would be raised 62 percent to $300,000 per year, and guaranteed contracts would remain in existence but would be limited to three-year deals.
The league agreed to retain arbitration, a change from its Dec. 14 counterproposal, but the NHL wants to make it so teams can take players to arbitration instead of it being a one-way process.
The NHL has been operating under the same collective bargaining agreement since 1995, when the last lockout went 103 days before a 48-game season was played.
"We have lived with a system that has been incredibly inflationary and caused dramatic, league-wide losses over the last 10 years," Daly said. "We only know one way to fix that."
The Stanley Cup has been awarded every year since 1919, when a flu epidemic wiped out the final series between Montreal and Seattle.