TORONTO -- People with knowledge of last week's collective bargaining negotiations confirmed last night that the NHL owners have offered the players a deal that doesn't include a payroll tax.
It is the tax, which the players call a salary cap in disguise, that has been the deal breaker thus far in keeping the players locked out and postponing the start of the season for 81 days, as of yesterday.
The league also has offered the NHL Players Association a deal that includes a salary tax, but the player representatives from the 26 teams emphatically rejected that approach last night when they met at a lakefront hotel.
"There won't be a deal with a tax in it," said Adam Graves of the Rangers, when he emerged from last night's three-hour session. "I imagine that talks will continue, but not in a vein with a tax included. The basis of a deal is in place for the most part. We've moved in the middle ground to get something done. This is very, very complex."
Last night's meeting set the stage for a general membership meeting here today that is expected to draw at least 200 players. No one in the union would speak about details of the eventual compromise, but it is expected that the players will give further ground on arbitration procedures, which many owners have said is a primary cause of the salary inflation they are seeking to control.
No formal negotiations are scheduled, although they could resume soon. Full bargaining broke off Dec. 6 when commissioner Gary Bettman reintroduced the concept of a payroll tax, which he called a "contribution."
But last week, during subcommittee meetings attended by two people from each side, both sides explored solutions that didn't include a tax.
The players already have agreed, tentatively, to major concessions on an entry-level salary cap and reductions in arbitration and free agency for young players. The owners have offered increased free-agency privileges for veterans.
No formal deadline for cancellation of the season has been announced, although the board of governors last week gave Bettman power to cancel the season if it is impossible to play a 50-game schedule and a full slate of playoffs before July 1.