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NHL Talks Sour as Players Reject Proposals : Hockey: Both sides refuse to budge, putting season in jeopardy.


Pessimism about saving the full NHL season set in among negotiators Wednesday after the players' association, fighting the imposition of a payroll levy to subsidize weak clubs, rejected two contract proposals from the league.

"I don't think we're going to be able to reach an agreement," said John McMullen, owner of the New Jersey Devils and a participant in the last two bargaining sessions. "It's over."

Said Tony Tavares, president of the Mighty Ducks: "This is a joke. I cannot believe there is absolutely no movement on the part of the NHLPA. They're clearly sending a message they have no intention of making a deal."

NHL Commissioner Gary Bettman last week delayed the start of the season for two weeks, until Oct. 15, to continue intensive talks. He said if no collective bargaining agreement had been drafted by then--or no substantial progress had been made--he would be forced to cancel games.

The NHL had reduced the rate of the levy from a maximum of 200% and changed it to a gradual increase before revising it again to a maximum of 125% on Tuesday. Those moves led McMullen to say Tuesday he believed a compromise was possible and a complete season could be played.

Wednesday's events, however, killed that optimism and touched off accusations from each side.

Because players consider the concept of a levy unacceptable, they were not swayed by the NHL's two last modifications in the levy formula. They object on the grounds that clubs would keep players' salaries low to avoid exceeding the limit and paying penalties.

"At what point does a tax become a salary cap?" said Mike Gartner, president of the NHLPA. "Until we come up with a solution to our philosophical differences, we'll be negotiating for a long time, I guess."

Said Howard Baldwin, co-owner of the Pittsburgh Penguins: "The lines are hardening. I'm very disappointed, very frustrated. I'm not optimistic at all."

Bob Goodenow, executive director of the NHLPA, said he will devise a counterproposal "over the next day or so" and contact the league to arrange additional talks.

Goodenow and his negotiating team have proposed a flat tax of 5.5% on the payrolls and gate receipts of the 16 top-revenue clubs. The proceeds would be distributed to the 10 small-market clubs. The NHL contends that would not help needy clubs.

Wednesday's frustration also sparked criticism of Goodenow from management representatives. Previously, most of the angry words have come from players decrying Bettman's lack of hockey knowledge.

"We will never capitulate because of the tactics he (Goodenow) is using on the league," said Harry Sinden, president and general manager of the Boston Bruins. "All my fears are realized. I had hoped we would be able to work out a deal. He has no intention of doing anything to help us."

Tavares suggested Goodenow had not fully informed players about the issues. Although Goodenow has said the NHL never gave him complete financial data, Tavares said that information had been made available to the union.

"What's shocking to me is the perception by the NHLPA that the league is inflexible and the league is not trying to make a deal," Tavares said. "I don't think anyone is working harder to make a deal than Gary Bettman. I think the players are basically disinterested.

" . . . My understanding is we have moved several times and the union is standing back at 20 paces and not moving."

Duck forward Stu Grimson disputed Tavares' characterization of the union.

"I think to this point, the players have been extremely flexible in terms of coming around to the position of assuming some of the responsibility for the problems (of the small-market clubs)," he said. "Is it the employee's responsibility to fix any other industry?"

Times staff writer Robyn Norwood contributed to this story.

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