The fate of the 1994-95 NHL season could be decided this week.

No firm date for cancelling the season has been set, although NHL commissioner Gary Bettman has the authority to shut it down if it becomes impossible to play a 50-game schedule with a full four rounds of playoffs by July 1.That would seem to indicate the necessity of the season starting before Jan. 15. Because the owners have said a two-week training camp is required, that means the lockout would have to end this week.

Despite the urgency, negotiations between the NHL and NHL Players Association will not occur until Tuesday at the earliest. That means three weeks will have elapsed since the last collective bargaining talks on Dec. 6.

"If we were that close to a real deadline, there would be all kinds of talks going on right now," said union vice-president Ken Baumgartner told The Canadian Press. "Talks would be proceeding at a hectic pace."

When talks resume, players expect owners to take aim at Group II salary arbitration (players aged 23 to 30) as a bargaining chip in getting a deal which doesn't include a payroll tax.

The NHL has indicated that a collective agreement excluding a salary tax also would have to exclude salary arbitration.

The players are ready to dig in.

"We have to stay with some sort of working form of salary arbitration," Baumgartner said last week. "We can discuss with them many ways of adjusting Group II; eligibility, comparables, some sort of walkaway.

"Each one has pitfalls for the players."

It seems that owners are divided on whether there will be a settlement.

Boston general manager Harry Sinden isn't an optimist. He believes owners and players are totally resolute in their stance regarding a salary tax and will remain so as the season falls off the rails.

"That's right," Sinden said. "As a result, we'll both go through with it. That's what I think will happen. It sounds pretty grim now."

But San Jose Sharks owner George Gund has a different view.

"They are very, very close to a deal," he said last week. "I expect they will be on the ice in about three weeks."

If and when there is a settlement, owners will have gained a measure of financial control they have not enjoyed in decades.

"It's obvious there are going to be a lot of changes," said Bruce Driver, player representative of the New Jersey Devils. "In certain areas, we're not going to be as well off.

"That was the owners' concern that things had to be changed. That's why the status quo was no good for them."

But should the season go down the drain, the NHL has taken steps to soften the hardship some owners will face.

Dallas owner Norm Green said the NHL offered some financial accommodations to help teams survive a cancelled season, if it comes to that.

"Only a few teams took them up on it and we are included in that group," said Green, who is among the individual owners who have been hit hardest by the short-term pain of the lockout.

The lockout enters its 87th day today.