NEW YORK -- Tick-tock. Tick-tock. The sound you hear is the National Hockey League counting down its own little self-destruct sequence.
After a 2 1/2 -hour meeting at a mid-town hotel yesterday, the NHL Board of Governors announced its resolve to cancel the 1994-95 season should a collective bargaining agreement not be reached in time to conclude a 50-game season and a full slate of playoffs by July 1.
"Time is short," said commissioner Gary Bettman. "I've advised Bob Goodenow and the union that we rejected the last proposal and told him we're ready to meet whenever he is."
Bettman said he will be in daily contact with the schedule-maker.
"Some morning we will wake up and we'll be out of time," he said.
NHL vice president Brian Burke said the answer is "not evasive" because building availability changes daily.
"I can tell you that if we have an agreement today, we can make the deadline, and if we have one tomorrow, we can probably make it," he said. "But can we still make it seven days from now? I don't know."
Burke said that if a deal is reached, he has recommended a 14-day training camp that includes two exhibition games.
But he did not seem to expect that a deal would be struck, and the representatives of the 26 clubs who voted unanimously to cancel the season when a 50-game season is out of reach were hard put to express words of hope.
"I'm scared," said Philadelphia Flyers president and general manager Bobby Clarke. "The players are going to lose millions, some of them are going to lose careers, and the owners are going to lose millions, too. Some of them may lose their franchises, but they can't afford to play the game the way it is now.
"The players have the attitude that they are giving, giving, giving, but the reality is not that. They're giving and we're giving and we're not taking anything away.
"They know our problem. We have to slow down rising salaries. Now they either work with us or we all go over the edge."
Last evening, Goodenow, the NHL Players Association executive director, issued a non-confrontational statement.
"I have not spoken directly with the commissioner, but I will be in contact with him in the not-too-distant future regarding further negotiations," Goodenow said. "The commissioner has said he wants to take a problem-solving approach toward the stumbling blocks we have encountered. I agree that such an approach would be helpful for purposes of reaching an agreement before the entire season is canceled."
Talks between the NHL and the NHLPA stalled last week in Chicago. The union says the talks came to a halt when ownership brought its tax plan back into discussion.
Bettman said yesterday that the talks had stalled before that, "and I brought the tax back into discussion in an effort to shake something up."
It shook the NHLPA right out of the room. The players said they believed they were negotiating an agreement that did not include a tax -- which Bettman says isn't exactly true.
"At one point, Bob said, 'Let's put the tax aside and work on other issues,' " said Bettman. "I held up my Pepsi can and said: 'This is the tax. Do you mean it is over here, still on the table, or do you mean it's over here in the garbage?' Bob said, 'It's in the garbage.' And I said, 'No, it's not going off the table.'
"Everyone knew from Day One the tax was on the table."
With the tax at least on the side of the table, progress was made on three issues: a rookie salary cap, arbitration and free agency, though none of the issues had been resolved.
"We reviewed the latest deal, and there was nothing in it that anyone was willing to accept," said Washington Capitals president Dick Patrick. "Everyone agreed that without the tax, nothing in the package worked for us.
"We instructed Gary to continue the process and try to come up with an overall structure that works."
Capitals owner Abe Pollin, who helped design the NBA salary cap structure, spoke to the Board of Governors, encouraging them "to hang in there until we find something that works."
The Capitals are one of eight clubs -- Boston, Chicago, Edmonton, Florida, Hartford, New Jersey and Philadelphia are the others -- considered to be hard-liners in the pursuit of a meaningful tax plan.
The NHLPA steadfastly has said it will not accept a tax that acts as a salary cap; the NHL owners say they can live with nothing less than a tax -- or some other creative plan -- that would act as a serious drag on salaries.
"What the players have offered so far is a little bit around the edge of what we need," said Bettman. "They have said what they have offered is all they have, that there is nothing left in their back pocket.
"If that's so, then given what's on the table, I don't see how we can make a deal without a tax.
"We're not looking to hit a home run here. We're looking for a fair, sensible agreement that works for both sides."