LOS ANGELES -- Los Angeles Kings owner Bruce McNall and team captain Wayne Gretzky are spearheading last-ditch efforts to salvage the National Hockey League season and Stanley Cup playoffs, according to sources close to the negotiations.
The active roles taken by McNall and Gretzky, the sources say, were critical in keeping talks alive beyond yesterday's deadline, at which time NHL president John Ziegler had promised to cancel the rest of the season unless a new collective bargaining agreement was in place.
The deadline passed without the NHL Players Association accepting the identical offer it had rejected Tuesday.
But instead of jettisoning the season and playoffs as he had said he would, Ziegler met with union chief Bob Goodenow several times yesterday. They were to meet again today in an attempt to end the nine-day players strike and resume the season Sunday.
The Board of Governors held a 3 1/2 -hour conference call yesterday and were scheduled to have another today after Ziegler and Goodenow face off at an undisclosed location in New York.
Ziegler's spokesman, Bill Wilkerson, said it is imperative that regular-season play resumes Sunday in order to squeeze in the playoffs, which would open April 18.
"Something has to happen [today] for an offer to be placed on the table and for the players to have a basis for reporting back to work," Wilkerson said.
Wilkerson said he was contacted by an official from the U.S. Federal Mediation Service in Washington, D.C., who is interested in helping to settle the dispute.
"The offer hasn't been rejected, but as a courtesy we will keep dTC him posted," Wilkerson said. "But that doesn't mean the owners have embraced mediation."
A source said the owners' offer rejected Tuesday was forged by McNall, who was left dejected but not crushed.
The source said a "misunderstanding" involving two key issues, free agency and licensing, resulted in its being rejected.
"If the differences are infinitesimal, as Goodenow says they are, there could be a deal [today]," the source said. "[But] if he attempts to renegotiate a new deal, well, that's it . . . we'll melt our ice."
League sources insist the ice would already have been turned to slush were it not for the efforts of McNall and Gretzky, who have combined in the past to buy racehorses and minor-league franchises.
"The most positive thing that emerged is that everyone agrees hockey is at a critical moment," one source said. "It means a lot when Wayne Gretzky says that. And there are more players than just Wayne who want to deal."
While trying to downplay his role in the proceedings, Gretzky did say he participated in a two-hour conference call yesterday morning with Goodenow, the union's negotiating committee and the 22 player representatives.
"I'm not leading anything," Gretzky said. "The reality is everybody wants to play hockey. I'm not trying to step on anyone's toes. We as players are just saying, 'What can we do to help get this resolved?'
"But I didn't lead anybody. Everybody obviously wants to get this resolved so we can play. Because of that, Bob and his committee are trying to come up with a formula to work this out."
Montreal Canadiens general manager Serge Savard, a member of the owners' committee, said, "I've heard that a lot of people have been pretty active."
Gretzky remains a staunch supporter of the union.
"If I went against it, I might as well retire. I wouldn't have much protection on the ice," he joked.
But he also is deeply concerned about possible long-term damage to hockey in the United States, especially in Southern California.
"We've spent four years building it up here," Gretzky said. "Baseball could survive an earthquake. We don't know what we could survive."
McNall declined to comment yesterday, but a source said the Kings boss shrugged off his initial frustration at rejection and has teamed with New York Rangers official Stanley Jaffe to convince a moderate faction of owners to try and save this season.
The moderates now outnumber the group of hard-liners led by board chairman William Wirtz of the Blackhawks, who has gone on record as saying he is prepared to use replacement players next season.
"[Most] owners don't want to walk away looking like heroes or making Goodenow look bad," a source said. "They just want a deal."
Spokesman Scott Carmichael said McNall took part in the owners' conference call from his Century City offices and that he was buoyed by the day's developments.
"He feels some very positive steps were taken," Carmichael said.