A last-ditch effort by the two of the sport's icons failed Saturday.
NEW YORK (AP) -- With Wayne Gretzky and Mario Lemieux inside the NHL labor mess, a terrible situation became a Great debacle instead of a Super save.
The sport's biggest names came up short at the bargaining table on Saturday, and the season was wrecked twice and for all.
It was first wiped out Wednesday, killed off when commissioner Gary Bettman said the differences over a salary cap between the league and the players' association wouldn't allow for hockey until at least the fall.
But neither side was really ready to let the season go.
Enter the Great Gretzky of Phoenix, and Pittsburgh's Super Mario.
Had hope going in
Three days after hockey Armageddon, there was suddenly new life and new hope that the season could be saved. Gretzky and Lemieux -- superstars turned executives of low-budget teams -- helped get the sides back together and then joined the fray.
There was no way these guys would fail, right? But they did. And they never really had a chance.
When Gretzky and Lemieux got to the table Saturday, it became clear quickly that rumors of a done deal were false -- as both sides said emphatically Friday -- and an agreement was not on the radar screen.
If there was a shot at a deal with a $45 million salary cap, we'll never know. The discussion over a number never came up -- much to the dismay of Nos. 99 and 66.
Scenario just got worse
This time, the news hit doubly hard. How was it possible that the worst possible scenario took a steeper turn downward in the same week?
The NHL was already dealing with the black eye of being the first major North American sports league to lose an entire season to a labor dispute. It took only three more days to damage the reputation of two Hall of Famers.
No one in the hockey world was happy that the season was lost, but many were prepared for what was previously unthinkable. It became clear during the past year how far apart the sides were.
But the roller coaster of the three days before the final meeting was both cruel and unusual for the die-hard fan and for Gretzky and Lemieux.
The hard part was already overcome Monday when the NHL dropped its demand for a link between league revenues and player costs, and the union said it would then accept a salary cap.
Angry letters containing "final offers" were traded Tuesday night. The NHL was dug in at a hard cap of $42.5 million, and the players wouldn't budge off their counterproposal of a $49 million soft cap.
NHLPA executive director Bob Goodenow told Bettman he wouldn't hear from the players' side again -- and Goodenow kept to his word during the final 12 hours before the season was canceled.
Left door open
But Bettman left the door open more than once during his end-of-the-season news conference. He said he wouldn't mind the embarrassment of a second announcement hours later that a deal was reached, that is if the union accepted his take-it-or-leave-it offer from Tuesday.
He didn't even rule out an accord with a salary cap of $45 million, even though he said teams would be stretched to the limit at $42.5 and that there was no time to negotiate.
Yet, there was.
The NHL called players' association president Trevor Linden to get him back to the table. Linden turned to Gretzky and Lemieux to become hockey's version of Eric Gagne -- the closers of the deal.
The cap was always the issue, even after it was accepted by the players. The debate of hard cap vs. soft cap was never resolved, nor was how the limit would fluctuate over the course of the six-year deal.
Players' association senior director Ted Saskin was surprised the NHL wanted to keep a hard number the same for the length of the agreement.
Cap gap too big
What was just a $6.5 million cap gap, suddenly became an unbridgeable ocean of difference.
There was no burst of speed, no nifty pass, no incredible shot into the top corner of the net that Gretzky or Lemieux could use to get the league out of this.
Now that the big guns didn't pull off this season save, there is nowhere to turn -- at least not for a while. Don't expect any negotiations anytime soon.
"While no new meetings are scheduled, we remain committed to continue working through the process until a new agreement can be reached," NHL chief legal officer Bill Daly said.
It would benefit the league greatly if a deal could be reached in time to hold the June draft and to begin a marketing blitz for the NHL's relaunch next season. But the incentive for players to make a deal now is gone. They aren't due to be paid again until October.
So the hockey calendar looks like this: a board of governors meeting and a players powwow within the next few weeks and maybe a court battle during the summer.
There is no hope anymore for this season. As for next season, that's anyone's guess.