NEW YORK - As the hours move toward yet another stoppage of the National Hockey League, Ryan Miller remains hopeful. The Buffalo Sabres goaltender believes that the league and its players can find common ground on a new collective bargaining agreement before the current one expires at midnight Saturday, a witching hour that will see the owners shut the doors on the players for the second time in eight years.
"We still have to believe that there's time to get a deal reached," Miller said Thursday.
However, as Miller spoke in a Times Square hotel, the league's board of governors - meeting only a few blocks uptown - was simultaneously making Miller's hope seem like a far-fetched dream. The NHL's 30 owners unanimously rallied around Commissioner Gary Bettman and his negotiating policies, the most notable of which is that the league will not continue without a new economic deal.
With the sides anywhere from $1 billion to $2 billion apart on their proposals, a delay to the start of the 2012-13 season is all but inevitable come Sunday morning.
"There was a complete show of support both for what we've been doing in bargaining, how the negotiations have been conducted, what positions we've taken and the fact that as we've been saying, including to the union as far back as November, we are not prepared to open another season until we get a new collective bargaining agreement," Bettman said.
The commissioner's announcement of unanimous support from the small-, large- and mid-market clubs dealt a direct blow to the source of Miller's faith. He hopes that the divergent needs of the various owners will cause the NHL to splinter.
"There are a lot of owners who are a little bit afraid to speak up right now, obviously because they get dinged with a million-dollar fine and lose draft picks," Miller said, referring to the league-imposed sanctions on comments made by any NHL employees other than Bettman or his deputy commissioner, Bill Daly.
"But within their own meetings or their own conversations, these guys need to step up at some point and talk about how our proposal can help them. It really is some of the top teams serving their interest right now, and that's not right.
"I doubt all the owners are as well-informed as all the players. I don't know if that's going to get me in trouble or not, but I just feel like it's kind of whatever they're told by Gary. I think there's definitely a small group that carries a lot of weight that want to push and see how far they can get. But that right there is at the expense of the fans and the game."
The board of governors' vote showed the owners are unified.
The 283 players, including 11 Sabres, who gathered for two days of NHL Players' Association meetings, professed equal solidarity. But because the two sides are so far apart, the fans might be the ones who lose. The hockey folks who want to see power-play goals and the Stanley Cup could be waiting a long time.
"Hockey is poised, I think, to really move over the next three or four years to a fundamentally different place than it has been before," NHLPA Executive Director Donald Fehr said. "The question is whether the disagreement we're having now is going to screw that up. It's bad, and it's unfortunate, and we've got to do what we can to avoid it."
Both sides say they want to avoid a lockout. Yet as the usual hustle and bustle occurred below them on the Manhattan streets, the negotiators were standing still. No developments occurred, and no new proposals were made.
"This is just a squeeze, and it's got to be more about hockey," Miller said. "It's about hockey and partnering up."
The main dispute is how to share the money earned by that partnership.
The NHLPA has made three proposals that revolve around revenue sharing. The players earned 57 percent of hockey-related revenues last season, and they say they are willing to take a smaller share but only if the NHL's highest-earning teams give money to clubs struggling financially.
"I just feel like we are more than willing to partner up in some way, and they just show they want to operate on the same system that has led us quite possibly to three different lockouts," Miller said, referring to work stoppages in 1994 and 2004. "We're willing to change the system and make it healthy, and they just keep operating out of, 'Oh, this is how we've always done it and be happy with it.'
"I think we're thinking much more about the future than the top executives of the NHL are because we want the game to be healthy. We don't want the fans to go through this every - in their proposal, it's going to be five or six years. I don't think it's fair. I don't think it's right."
The owners insist revenue sharing is not an issue. The only issue is money. The players get too much, and the league wants to tip the scales back in its favor.
The league's most recent proposal would give the players 49 percent of the revenues this season, gradually decreasing to 47 percent over the life of the six-year deal.