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THERE'S PLENTY TO TALK ABOUT BUT NOBODY'S SPEAKING

Please forgive me for being a little rusty. It's been five months since my last twirl around the National Hockey League, even longer since my last confession, but what would you expect with the season dark and no sins to cleanse with the man upstairs?

Today, we start by answering the most frequently asked question, an FAQ that might even surpass "So, how'd you get the name Bucky, did you have buckteeth when you were a kid?" if the lockout lasts 15 more minutes. For the umpteenth time, there's no way the NHL is playing this season.

Forget the fact that the NHL isn't messing around, and its players' association isn't backing down. Gary Bettman and Bob Goodenow are no closer to reaching a new labor agreement today than they were five months ago. It's the same song, the same dance, and the same dancers skating in circles.

The last time anybody checked, it was impossible to reach an agreement without negotiations. They haven't met since Sept. 9, and no talks are scheduled. The NHL is telling teams to book their buildings 45 days in advance, which means negotiations would need to start in less than a month for the season to start in mid-January.

So, kiss this season goodbye.

"Right now, it looks very bleak," eternal optimist Wayne Gretzky told reporters last week in Toronto. "Obviously, there's a strong possibility that the whole year will be canceled. I definitely hope that doesn't happen, but at this point in time, judging by what I'm hearing and reading through the media, there's no conversation. When nobody's talking and there's no conversation, obviously, there's going to be no hockey."

Let's say, for argument's sake, Goodenow caved to Bettman's demand for cost certainty, or a salary cap, or a payroll limit, or whatever term predetermines how much money teams pay their players. It would need a number. Bettman is thinking about $31 million. You can bet Goodenow would counter with a figure that's roughly double.

Or let's say Bettman caved and agreed to continue with a free-market system. Presumably, his counter offer would include the abolishment of guaranteed contracts for players. The union isn't surrendering guaranteed money. Bettman couldn't justify keeping guaranteed contracts unless there's a cap.

Around and around we go. Isn't this fun?

Even if the great arbitrator in the sky descended upon the dispute, found middle ground with a soft cap and a high luxury tax, it wouldn't signal a treaty. It would only be an introduction, the first sentence in hockey's version of "War and Peace."

"I understand what the players are saying because I was a player. And I understand what management and ownership is saying because I am an owner of a team," Gretzky said. "But this is a complex, complicated situation. There are a lot of issues at stake here, and not just the salary cap."

Take revenue sharing. The union wants teams to make up the differences in payroll by sharing revenue, and the league is listening, but nobody seems to know exactly how much would be divided. The New York Rangers might have contributed to skyrocketing salaries, but they also generated more revenue than most teams. Why should they share their receipts with the Sabres, for example, and weaken their own purchasing power?

What about shortening the 82-game schedule? Chopping, say, 12 games off the schedule would mean cutting salaries by about 14 percent -- on top of whatever financial concessions players made elsewhere. On the flip side, the Maple Leafs collect about $1.4 million (U.S.) for every home game. Should we expect them to accept $8.4 million less every year and watch the franchise depreciate?

See where we're going here? Nowhere. My guess is the season will resume in January.

January of 2006 sounds about right.

Amerks worth the price

You think Buffalo is starved for hockey? The Sabres reported some 2,700 walk-up customers for the Rochester Americans game against Cincinnati on Nov. 5 in HSBC Arena. It's roughly triple the walk-up for an average Sabres game.

The original plan was to keep the 300 level closed, but that quickly changed when attendance soared to more than 12,000 for an American Hockey League game. Tickets were $15 and $20, and the game was well worth the money.

If you want odd-man rushes, scoring chances and a few fights, drive to Rochester. Attendance for Amerks games has increased 18 percent since last season. There's a big difference in skill between the NHL and AHL, but the game was no less entertaining than most Sabres games.

The rules were better, too. Goalies are fair game outside a crease behind the net. No-touch icing and touch-up offside were among the reasons the game maintained flow.

It's Greek to Chelios

Red Wings defenseman Chris Chelios spent a few days in Lake Placid last week for the usual reasons. You know, that's where everyone goes when they want to become world-class bobsledders.

Chelios for months has talked about his fantasy of representing Greece in the 2006 Winter Olympics in Italy. Chelios' grandparents are Greek. He was working out with the U.S. team along with surfer Laird Hamilton.

"What a rush," Chelios said. "We had some good speed. It's the fastest thing I've ever done."

Chelios, a three-time U.S. hockey Olympian, stands a good chance of making the Greek team. Then again, if you have Greek bloodlines, so do you.

NHLPA blasts back

Canadiens legend Jean Beliveau, who played for about $20,000 a year back when owners ran the NHL like a sweatshop, took some heat last week from the NHLPA for blaming the players for the current labor situation.

"They're making a big mistake, a terrible mistake," said Beliveau, a Hall of Famer and former captain. "I've always sided with the players in the past, but this time I really believe they're completely wrong."

NHLPA senior director Ted Saskin issued a statement outlining how Beliveau worked for 30 years with the Habs and made similar comments supporting owners in 1994. Fair enough, but Saskin didn't mention how someone making the current average NHL salary of $1.8 million wouldn't need to work anywhere for 30 years.

Around the boards

No need to stop the presses, but Sidney Crosby was atop the Quebec Major Junior Hockey League scoring race last week. The 17-year-old phenom has been called "The Next One" -- see, Gretzky -- and won the scoring title last season as a rookie. He had 15 goals and 46 points in his first 20 games for Rimouski. Who will get to draft him next year? Who knows. Without a CBA there is no draft.

Thomas Vanek might have scored two goals for the Amerks last weekend but the Sabres prospect couldn't have found the defensive zone with a compass. So far, the kid only skates hard in one direction. Sabres coach Lindy Ruff couldn't have been too pleased watching the skilled left winger coast -- and I mean coast -- on "D."

Couldn't help but notice Corey Hirsch was between the pipes last week when Canada beat Switzerland in an exhibition. Hirsch recently wrote a column in Toronto criticizing NHLers in Europe after he lost his job to Carolina goalie Martin Gerber. Who was in the opposing net for the Swiss team? Why, it was Martin Gerber.
e-mail: bgleason@buffnews.com

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