NEW YORK -- Backed to the wall and facing the possible cancellation of the NHL season, the NHL Board of Directors cracked.
The league rejected the players' latest contract offer yesterday, but sent the NHL Players' Association a counter-proposal that drops its demands for a payroll tax or salary cap.
NHL commissioner Gary Bettman said if the deal was not accepted by noon Tuesday, he would cancel the season.
"There is no further action required by me or the board to do that and Tuesday is a firm date," Bettman said. "I'm hopeful this will thread the needle. No one wants to get this season started more than me. This proposal addresses the union's concerns -- and ours."
The league's new offer incorporates many of the players' suggestions in their "last, best" proposal. The players' union had said that that proposal was a "take it or leave it" deal, too, but NHLPA director Bob Goodenow received the compromise proposal last night and immediately huddled with his negotiating committee in Toronto.
The union had scheduled a conference call for last night to react to the NHL's move yesterday, but canceled it when the league's counter-proposal arrived.
"Bob and members of the committee are reviewing the proposal," said NHLPA spokesman Steve McCallister. "But they will have nothing further to say until at least tomorrow."
The deal would cover the rest of this year and five more years, with a window for the owners to reopen the collective bargaining agreement after the fourth season.
The Washington Capitals, known as a hard-line team in these negotiation, had said they would not be happy with anything less than a tax or cap when considering the players' last proposal, voted for the counter-proposal.
"This kind of deal could have been done earlier," said team president Dick Patrick, who attended the seven-hour meeting with team owner Abe Pollin. "We haven't stayed the course to get the deal we wanted.
"My own view is that if this offer isn't accepted, Bob Goodenow, from the beginning, didn't want to play hockey this season."
Bettman said the owners rejected the union's proposal, 19-7, and after a sometimes heated debate, voted to offer the counter-proposal by a 20-6 margin.
He also said he would be waiting to talk to Goodenow, "when he is ready to reach out to me." But he added he did not intend to re-open negotiations. The deal offered is the final one.
"If they accept this, we will be the only major sport without a tax or a cap," said New Jersey Devils owner John McMullen. "In my opinion, no major league is going to survive for long without tying salaries and revenues and I had to compromise myself a lot. But what happens if we don't play?"
The NHL's last offer includes:
* Unfettered free agency at age 32.
* Changes in the entry level system including, raising the draft age from 18 to 20, entering players would sign for up to three years, with a mandatory two-way contract, and a rookie cap would set the top contract at $825,000 and gradually increase to $1,050,000 in 2000.
* Group two players would preserve their rights to salary arbitration in a modified form. Each club would have the right to reject two arbitration awards of at least $500,000 per year per team. The players had offered one such option, if the award were greater than $701,000.
But one of the most interesting statements made yesterday was about what isn't in the proposal. From the beginning, the owners have insisted one of the reasons they must have a tax was to raise money to help small-market teams and the union countered that it should consider revenue-sharing, before attempting to fix a cap or tax on salaries and payrolls.
Last night, Bettman said the board had agreed "to study the issue" of revenue-sharing.
"Once we see if we have a season," said Bettman, "we have to examine the small-market issues and see what we can do ourselves to help our members."
That decision, Patrick said, was one of the most encouraging things to come out of the marathon session.
"I think the league is long overdue for it," Patrick said. "It's another way to attack the problems of the market we have. We have to continue to work at doing something, because we haven't helped ourselves a lot with this offer. We've pretty much kept ourselves in the hole."
The owners had previously threatened to cancel the season if 50 games and a full slate of playoffs could not be played, which meant a Jan. 16 start of the season. Yesterday, Bettman said the league is about 12 hours behind schedule for opening if the deal is taken.