Prospects Are Dim for Avoiding Delay : Hockey: Latest proposal by NHL fails to spark any hint of agreement, increasing chance that season's start will be postponed.

TIMES STAFF WRITER

Prospects that the NHL season will start as scheduled on Saturday grew increasingly dim Tuesday, after players scorned a new proposal introduced by the league during an eight-hour bargaining session in Toronto.

Central to the new proposal is a major reduction in the rate of the "luxury tax" that would be paid by teams whose payrolls exceed a negotiated, predetermined amount.

The NHL's plan initially called for a levy of 100% on the first 10% above the limit and a 200% levy on anything above that. The new plan calls for a far lower rate, although the exact percentage was not immediately revealed. Proceeds of the levy would be pooled and disbursed to help the league's weaker teams.

"We have moved considerably," a management source said after the meeting, which concluded 13 hours of talks over two days. "They're not moving."

Bob Goodenow, executive director of the NHL Players Assn., stopped short of rejecting the new plan but offered little hope of accepting it.

"The proposal they have is unacceptable," Goodenow said. "In essence, it caps salaries and that is a big problem for us."

Another source said Tuesday's session generated a cloud of pessimism and added, "There won't be any hockey on Saturday."

Commissioner Gary Bettman announced last Thursday that he would indefinitely postpone the start of the season unless a new collective bargaining agreement could be reached. He will inform clubs Friday, probably in the morning to accommodate those scheduled to fly long distances, whether to stay home or proceed with their travel plans. Twelve games are scheduled for Saturday.

Goodenow is expected to formally respond today or Thursday. In objecting to the NHL's first levy system, Goodenow said it would make the costs of signing players prohibitive and, in essence, function as a salary cap.

"We have some very difficult problems to overcome," he said.

Said the Kings' Marty McSorley: "We're prepared to shut it down."

No negotiations are scheduled today, although Bettman said he would not be averse to talking with Goodenow by phone and meeting with him again Thursday.

"I wish I could report a great deal of progress, but there has not been," Bettman said. "We still have a lot of work to do and we continue to be available to meet, but I'm worried that time is getting short."

Bettman repeatedly expressed frustration over the failure to find common ground. Although both sides recognize the need to help subsidize small-market teams, owners want the subsidy to be tied to players' salaries and players want it to be borne primarily by the owners, in the form of a 5% levy on clubs' gate receipts.

"We have some wide rivers to cross," Bettman said.

"It's disappointing to me that one person (Bettman) has taken the bull by the horns and decided we're not going to play the game," Wayne Gretzky said in San Antonio after the Kings' exhibition game against the Dallas Stars. "I've been playing all these years, and to have a guy who's only been around one year do this, it's very frustrating."

Goodenow, in a letter sent to players last Saturday, agreed that the scope of their differences makes an agreement impossible.

"We are committed to ongoing negotiations with the NHL through Oct. 1," Goodenow wrote. "Unfortunately, prospects for successfully concluding negotiations by that date are possible but not promising."

League sources say the NHL has prepared several schedules to cover cancellations of varying lengths. In addition, a club executive said he and his colleagues were instructed "a long time ago" to determine whether dates in their arenas will be available in June, July and August, anticipating that games would be postponed and added onto the end of the original schedule.

The Kings have made preliminary inquiries to determine dates the Forum will be available if they must make up games, a club spokesman said. He anticipated no scheduling conflicts next summer.

The Mighty Ducks are holding dates on reserve at The Pond from May through August, as they did last summer for clinics, promotions and charity events, a spokesman said. Those dates could be used to play makeup games.

Times staff writers Lisa Dillman and Robyn Norwood contributed to this story.

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