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Season Now in Jeopardy : Hockey: Players reject two proposals for compromise. One owner says, 'It's over.'


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

It was learned that the NHL, bowing to players' claims that a payroll levy unfairly burdened them with supporting small-market clubs, offered to impose a levy on gate receipts. That proposal would spread the economic load among players and owners.

The second proposal made Wednesday stipulated the levy would be assessed on all payroll dollars, not only on the amount clubs exceeded a negotiated limit. That was meant to address players' objections that a levy would function as a salary cap because clubs would try to keep salaries low to avoid paying fines triggered by excess spending.

"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."

Players continue to object to any form of salary restrictions.

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

Bob Goodenow, the union's executive director, said he would assemble a counterproposal "within the next couple of days."

Last Friday, when he delayed the start of the season until Oct. 15 and created a two-week negotiating period, NHL Commissioner Gary Bettman said he would cancel games if he didn't see a deal or substantial progress by the new deadline. He said Wednesday he is not ready to declare an impasse.

"No, because I want to be in a position to have hockey games being played and I am going to do everything in my power so that can happen," he said.

He added, "I'm frustrated, and I guess that's how I'll leave it."

The NHL has tinkered with the levy several times, reducing the rate from a maximum of 200% and changing 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. The players' double rejection Wednesday doused that optimism.

"The lines are hardening. I'm very disappointed, very frustrated," said Howard Baldwin, co-owner of the Pittsburgh Penguins. "(A deal) can get done, I think, if you have two sides that are willing to compromise and negotiate. All we have done is extend two offers, offers that keep getting better, and we get nothing back but no, no, no. You can't make a deal unless two people are willing to negotiate."

McMullen claimed that Gartner conceded the NHL's proposal "technically" was not a salary cap. Gartner could not be reached for a response.

Goodenow and the union 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 small-market clubs. The NHL contends that would not produce enough money to help needy clubs.

"You know, the most important thing in the world when you deal with a union is to have an intelligent union leader," McMullen said, "and we didn't have one today."

Bettman later apologized for that remark. Other management representatives, however, were unapologetic in their biting criticism of Goodenow.

"We will never capitulate because of the tactics he 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 such 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. I think the players have received a great deal of disinformation, which has caused them to be inflexible."

Duck forward Stu Grimson disputed Tavares' characterization.

"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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