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There's no mystery, season is almost over

No one really knows what to make of the NHL canceling a board of governors meeting scheduled for Thursday.

What made it odd was the timing of the cancellation, a full week before the meeting was to take place. Why cancel a meeting that is a week away? Why not wait until a day or two before? How can the league know that the next few days won't produce new developments?

If the league is telling the truth _ that the meeting was canceled because there is nothing new to report _ that's bad news. It would be good news if the cancellation came because there are secret negotiations going on and the sides are close to a deal.

Don't hold your breath on that last part.

Here's a guess as to what happened:

The league tried to spook the union by announcing a meeting that was vague in its agenda. Just as the league wanted, everyone predicted the season would be canceled at that meeting or, at least, a drop-dead date would be set. Those predictions were supposed to scare the union.

Problem was, the union didn't seem startled, at least not enough to call their own meeting and start working on a new proposal.

So, perhaps, the league is trying again to scare the union by canceling the meeting. It's the league's way of saying, "We've got nothing new. Looks like the season might go down. Time is running out."

There was talk the owners were preparing an offer (one that would include a salary cap) and that they were going to turn it over this week. But instead of having union chief Bob Goodenow review it, the league was going to ask that the proposal be turned over to the entire union for a vote.

Who knows if that rumor is true, but it's looking more unlikely each day. The only thing that appears certain is time is running out quickly. We're down to, at most, two weeks to reach a deal and save the season.

Both sides say they are not preparing offers. But this is when the owners need to step up and make one last attempt. They need to make a final offer and it must be their best offer. They should take their last proposal, make some revisions, offer some concessions and then present it to the union by the end of this week.

Tell the union this is their best offer and if it's turned down, they will cancel the season. Quit the mind games, the tricks, the veiled threats. Stop calling meetings, canceling them and then having teams leak anonymous quotes saying the season is dead.

Just lay it out. Here's our offer. You have 48 hours. If you accept it, the season will start on "this" date. Turn it down and we will immediately cancel the season.

It might be the only way the season will be saved.

BAD BOSS: BusinessWeek magazine placed NHL commissioner Gary Bettman fifth on its list of the seven worst managers of 2004.

He was on the list with Raymond Gilmartin, chief executive officer of Merck & Co., the makers of Vioxx; Scott Livengood, the CEO of Krispy Kreme Doughnuts, which faces a regulatory probe into its accounting practices; and Disney chief Michael Eisner, who was forced to step down as company chairman amid a shareholder revolt.

About Bettman, BusinessWeek wrote: "Arenas have been empty since Sept. 15, when National Hockey League owners locked out the players. NHL finances are in shambles, and the weak TV deal signed with NBC last spring suggests the league has little leverage and is now a second-tier sport. Under Bettman, the NHL has been skating on thin ice for years."

UP WITH FLAMES: The Lightning was the best team in the NHL last season, but in the Great White North, the Flames were No. 1.

They were named Canada's team of the year by the Canadian Press and Broadcast News. The Flames beat out Team Canada's World Cup hockey team 246 points to 164 in balloting of sports editors and broadcasters across the country.

The Grey Cup champion Toronto Argonauts were third.

"Quite honestly, I think that's based more on the fact we played a whole season," Flames coach Darryl Sutter said. "Those were great accomplishments by those groups, but it's nice to see a team recognized for a whole season."

Information from other news organizations was used in this report.