TORONTO -- As the NHL and its players union resumed negotiations here yesterday, a group of children waited outside the meeting, hoping to catch sight of a player and grab an autograph.
It was Thanksgiving in Canada, and even an autograph from a hockey player in street clothes is better than nothing -- which is all any hockey fan has gotten so far this season.
During a three-hour meeting that included four owners and seven active players yesterday, the NHL Players Association presented its latest counterproposal. But it was difficult to gauge the owners' reaction.
"We do not have a deal, but I will present the players association proposal to our board of governors and we will set a course of action," said NHL commissioner Gary Bettman, who emerged from the meeting with a somber face.
The NHL's governors will meet in New York today. "We're not in position to comment on the proposal until after we report back to our full board," Bettman said. "This is a long, hard process. I'm sorry if we don't look more energetic."
Five days ago, NHL owners depicted NHLPA chief Bob Goodenow as an enemy of the negotiations to reach a new collective bargaining agreement.
The owners held themselves in check yesterday, refraining from any comments on the plan or the union, aside from saying everything was handled in a "businesslike manner."
But Goodenow took great pains to portray the NHLPA as cooperative during these negotiations.
Reading a statement, NHLPA leaders identified the main stumbling block to an agreement as a "revenue reallocation and distribution" plan, and then said that because "some NHL personnel have apparently mischaracterized our proposals, suggesting that we were not moving and that all we did was say 'no,' we want to set the record straight."
Goodenow then outlined the highlights of the players' proposal, which includes a 7 percent tax on players' salaries and a 3 percent tax on gate receipts to create a pool of $20 million to help small-market clubs.
The deal would be for three years or until a maximum of $50 million in payroll tax had been contributed.
"If you had asked me at the start of the summer if we'd be offering to tax salaries, I would have said, 'No, absolutely not,' " said Washington Capitals forward Kelly Miller, an NHLPA vice president. "We've bent over backward to try to address their concerns. We're talking about a total tax [payroll and gate receipts] of 10 percent. That's a lot of money."
The difference between the NHLPA and NHL tax plans can be illustrated this way:
Say the average team salary in the NHL is about $15 million and a club's payroll were to exceed that average by $5 million. Under the players' plan, the tax would be about $1.4 million. Under ownership's plan, it would be about $7 million.
"The NHL's plan will not achieve any revenue sharing," said Goodenow, "since it will drive the high-paying clubs to cut their payrolls to avoid paying the tax.
"This remains the critical difference between our respective plans: Our plan will create a guaranteed pool of money to distribute to clubs and would result in a greater after-tax balance in the revenues of all clubs. The NHL plan remains designed to encourage clubs to avoid paying the tax by slashing their player payrolls, producing very little money for the distribution pool and operating as a salary cap."
Capitals owner Abe Pollin, president Dick Patrick and general manager David Poile plan to be present at today's meeting.
"I am very anxious to go to New York and hear the complete proposal," said Poile. "I have to listen to the whole thing in order to have enough information to make a judgment on their proposal right now."
Poile, however, did seem disappointed that the union's counterproposal dealt only with the revenue-sharing aspect of the negotiations.
"I think there are some other pretty significant issues -- entry-level salaries, roster limits, NHL contract forms, free agency," Poile said. "I have to know how all those things fit in
before I can tell you how their revenue proposal will work."
Given the number of questions still to be answered, perhaps the most pertinent question going into today's meetings is whether the NHLPA's proposal will be identified by Bettman and his board of governors as "meaningful" progress in the negotiations.
And, if so, will Bettman now accept the union's 2-week-old offer of no-strike/no-lockout, return the 19 benefits he withdrew Aug. 1 and open the season Saturday, while continuing negotiations?
NHLPA president Mike Gartner said he doesn't know: "We've never been able to fully understand what Gary means by 'meaningful negotiations,' " he said.
Bettman didn't offer a definition yesterday.
"I know the players could be ready to play by Saturday," Bettman said. "As far as the rest, I'll be better able to answer after the board meeting."
THE KEY POINTS
Key points in the NHL Players Association's counterproposal presented to the NHL yesterday, as viewed by the NHLPA:
* The NHLPA plan uses a graduated tax rate on a proposed salary tax, as the NHL requested. (The NHLPA previously proposed a flat rate of 5.5 percent.)
* The NHLPA applies graduated tax rates to player payrolls of the top 16 revenue clubs and hits the four top-spending clubs with significantly higher tax rates than applied to lower-spending teams. The top rate would be 7 percent. (The owners' last proposal called for a top rate of 122 percent).
* The NHLPA has reduced its proposed tax on gate receipts from 5.5 percent to 3 percent, as the NHL suggested.
* The NHLPA plan now guarantees a revenue pool of $20 million, $1 million more than the NHL suggested in its last proposal.
* The NHLPA proposal shifts significant revenue dollars from the wealthiest, highest-spending clubs, and will act as a drag on players salaries, as the NHL has requested.
* The NHLPA plan would raise the lowest clubs to more than 72 percent of the league average, (which the NHLPA contends is better than both the NBA and Major League Baseball).