The candle of hope is burning low on the 101st day of the NHL lockout.
"Optimism is not a sentiment to be bandied about," said Bob Goodenow, the NHL Players Association's executive director.
The NHLPA executive board rejected the NHL's "final" counterproposal yesterday afternoon, 26-0, although the owners for the first time included neither a salary cap nor a payroll tax to hold down salaries.
But differences in the freedom issue -- free agency -- turned the players against the proposal.
"When you get limits on what you can make, where you can go and when you can go, to the limits they put on us, it's just not right," Chicago Blackhawks center Jeremy Roenick told the Associated Press. "It's almost like a form of Communism. I can't become a free agent until I'm 32 years old? Who's going to want me at 32, anyway?"
In fact, said Washington Capitals defenseman Jim Johnson, "the way their last proposal reads, it is so restrictive, we'd be better off taking a tax or cap and taking back all our concessions. The season sure looks over to me. I don't expect any miracles to happen."
The league had offered the counterproposal as a take-it-or-leave-it deal that the players must accept by noon tomorrow or the NHL season would be canceled.
But Goodenow said late yesterday afternoon, via conference call, that he has called NHL commissioner Gary Bettman and the two have agreed to meet today in New York.
"I don't think there should be optimism," Goodenow said. "There is no reason for it. But, by the same token, it is incumbent on both sides to take every step and make every effort to come to an agreement."
The owners left New York on Saturday feeling they had done all they could.
"If they don't accept this," said Capitals president Dick Patrick, "then I have to believe Bob Goodenow never wanted to play hockey this season."
But way back before there was a lockout, the NHLPA had offered to play the season with a no-strike promise, while continuing to negotiate.
"We can't cancel the season," said Goodenow. "We offered to play. Only the owners can cancel the season."
Which they say they'll do high-noon tomorrow without a deal.
Although admitting there are some players who would accept the owners' deal -- as there were seven teams that would have accepted the players' last offer -- Goodenow reiterated the NHLPA's stand that it had no more to give after presenting the league with a "last, best" proposal that was rejected Saturday.
"We have no better offer to make," he said. "Things can be adjusted. But there is no more room for negotiations."
How much room Bettman has to negotiate also is questionable.
Capitals general manager David Poile said last night: "The NHL board went through a very hard seven-hour meeting, with clubs voicing various positions, just to get to the proposal that was offered. To change something substantial, I don't know."
And Bettman said Saturday night, after announcing the league's final counterproposal, that while he would meet with Goodenow, "I'm not exactly sure what he would have in mind and I'm not looking to open up negotiations . . . what I'm looking for is to have the players say this is it [a done deal]."
The league had hoped that by dropping its demands for a salary cap or payroll tax, the players would accept this last proposal.
NHL vice president Brian Burke said if he had to tell the NHLPA why they should accept this deal he'd point to the fact that it is being offered the deal with no tax, no cap and no limit on what any club can spend per player or total payroll.
"Football did not give unrestricted free agency until it litigated for 6 1/2 years and got a hard cap," said Jeffrey Pash, NHL general counsel. "Basketball didn't give it until after years of litigation and a salary cap. Baseball has now implemented a salary cap in efforts to deal with the problem free agency has caused.
"We will be the only sport to voluntarily surrender unrestricted free agency in the absence of any regulatory agents. And I think by any measure it is a very, very substantial concession made by the owners."
But the union points out that it is a concession only in terms of the owners not continuing to ask for it while the players concede plums won in past bargaining contracts. "All I've seen is us give," said the Caps' Johnson. "There is not one issue where we've gained anything. If the season ends, I can sleep. We've already gone overboard."
Among the unresolved issues in the NHL lockout:
* Free agency at age 32 instead of the players' desire for age 30.
* A rookie cap starting at $825,000 instead of $900,000.
* Players not being eligible for the draft until age 20, instead of 18.
* Terms of the collective bargaining reopener. The players want both sides to have the right to reopen negotiations after 2.5 years, while the league proposal allows for only ownership to have the reopening option.