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Jay McKee chuckled at his own statement because he knew it would sound ridiculous, that maybe he was fooling himself.

The Buffalo Sabres defenseman, sitting on the cold metal bleachers beside a rink in the Amherst Pepsi Center after a recent workout, said he still thought it was a coin flip on whether there would be NHL games this season.

He was clinging to the dream tighter than his sweat-soaked clothes were to his body. He just can't comprehend otherwise. Not yet.

"It has reached the point of anger with many guys," McKee said. "I'm a patient player. I'm optimistic. I just can't fathom the idea of hockey not being played and the business side of it not being run for a full year."

McKee laughed again and shook his head.

"If that happens," he continued, "it almost makes you want to get rid of the sport."

Blow it up?

"That's fine," McKee replied. "They can do whatever they need to do. Get off of where the league is at right now and figure out a way to make it work. There will be no season if there's a salary cap."

The NHL lockout is about to enter its seventh week. The owners are hell-bent on implementing a salary cap as the crux of a new collective bargaining agreement, while the NHL Players Association refuses to consider such a thing.

Negotiations between the sides have been non-existent since Sept. 9, six days before the lockout was announced. No meetings are on the horizon.

The season already has been canceled through Dec. 15, a total of 423 games. The Sabres have lost 28 games, or 34 percent of their schedule.

"We expect it drag on a lot more," Sabres winger Eric Boulton said. "It's only early yet. That's the way I look at it."

Among the local pros who have been skating at the Pepsi Center three days a week during the lockout, Boulton's cynicism is shared substantially more than McKee's hopefulness.

"I'm looking for a place to play right now," Boulton said. "That tells you how optimistic I am."

Time is quickly dwindling toward the point when NHL Commissioner Gary Bettman will have to call off the season. Rene Fasel, president of the International Ice Hockey Federation, hinted he had inside information when he told a Swiss newspaper last week that "Bettman will decree a lockout for the entire season in the second half of November," an assertion the NHL denied.

"It's becoming clear with the stance the league is taking," said Sabres forward Adam Mair, "that their game plan going in was to sacrifice the entire season."

The owners insist they need a salary cap to curtail player salaries that are soaring out of control. A report commissioned by the NHL claimed the 30 clubs lost a combined $273 million in 2002-03.

Unlike the 1994-95 work stoppage, which ended in late January, it doesn't appear the owners will panic. They're much more prepared this time.

Each team contributed equally to a $300 million lockout fund, but most of the owners -- there are 22 new ones since 1994 -- are wealthy enough to withstand a lengthy lockout without dipping into the war chest.

The Toronto Star recently reported the average personal net worth of an NHL owner is $500 million. Sabres owner B. Thomas Golisano is worth over $1 billion. Tampa Bay Lightning owner William Davidson is worth $2.8 billion. Los Angeles Kings owner Philip Anschutz is worth more than $5 billion, or twice as much as Donald Trump.

The players, meanwhile, prepared for years for the lockout. Sabres center Chris Drury was told as a rookie at his NHLPA orientation meeting six years ago to start squirreling away his money for 2004.

Most NHL players are millionaires, and while they can partially compensate for their loss of earnings in Europe -- 236 are skating overseas and dozens more will join them if the season is scrubbed -- they don't have the outside revenue streams to endure a lockout like the owners can.

The longer the stalemate lasts, the better the likelihood the NHL will declare a legal impasse. That could set up a dream situation for the owners: resume operations without a CBA, implement a salary cap and open training camps to whomever wants to try out.

In other words, the NHL eventually could employ replacement players in an attempt to geld the union. Many hockey experts predict such a maneuver will take place.

"I don't think hockey players are the type of people to cross the line as replacement players," Mair said. "It's such a game of honor. On top of that there are so many laws in Canada that I don't think, from what I've read, it's even a possibility."

Labor laws in Canada could make replacement hockey difficult to pull off. Whereas the National Labor Relations Board oversees all workplace conditions in the United States, each Canadian province governs its labor issues.

The NHL has teams in four provinces, and each has its own set of labor laws. It's against the law to use replacement players in British Columbia and Quebec, where the Vancouver Canucks and Montreal Canadiens are based, but it's uncertain if the NHLPA is a certified union under differing provincial criteria.

"If there's no hockey for a year, I don't think the fans are going to come back right away," Boulton said. "The fans are going to be ticked off, so why would they come back to see replacement players?"

The NHLPA has called an informal meeting for Tuesday in Toronto, bringing together representatives from all 30 teams to share information. The Sabres are sending three emissaries -- Mair, McKee and defenseman James Patrick -- because they didn't name a permanent player rep after Curtis Brown was traded in March.

"The frustration level and the disappointment with the lack of negotiations is very high," McKee said. "For a business that generates over $1 billion in revenue, it's amazing to think there could be a full year without hockey."


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