The NHL Players Assn. formally rejected the league's latest contract offer Wednesday and presented no counterproposal, leaving little hope of averting a postponement of Saturday's season-opening games.
No further meetings are scheduled, although union head Bob Goodenow and NHL Commissioner Gary Bettman agreed to stay in contact.
Bettman will confer with the league's Board of Governors today by conference call to determine their next action. A league source said the call will serve as "an update and a discussion," but it is possible Bettman will use the opportunity to tell the governors he will proceed with his plan to delay the start of the season.
"It's getting down to the 11th hour," said a club executive who asked not to be identified. "Whether it's this phone call or Friday morning, it's coming soon. I don't think we're going to be sitting here Friday."
In announcing last week that he would not allow the season to begin unless a new collective bargaining agreement was in place, Bettman set Friday as a deadline for informing clubs whether Saturday's 12 scheduled games will be played. Most clubs that open on the road would leave home Friday morning or afternoon. Sources on both sides say Bettman is holding firm to the deadline.
"We feel that our last proposal was an indication of how eager we are to make a deal," said Arthur Pincus, the NHL's vice president for public relations. "We're sorry that the players association didn't see it the same way. We are eager to make a deal."
The NHL's revised offer, given to Goodenow on Tuesday, featured a reduction in the rate of the levy to be assessed against teams that exceed a set payroll limit. The levy would be graduated, beginning with a 5% penalty at $250,000 over the limit and rising.
Its first proposal mandated a levy of 100% on the first 10% over the limit and a levy of 200% on amounts beyond that.
The union rejected both plans because it contends they would establish salary restraints, which it refuses to consider in any form.
"The same objection we had with the proposal previous to this revision remained," Goodenow said. "From a structural point of view and a principle of view it just seems we are far apart. No question, there are some serious problems.
"There's no question their proposal caps salaries. It really distorts things because it (the burden of subsidizing small-market clubs) is all on the players."
Goodenow spent much of Wednesday talking with players. A number of players are planning to meet with him in Toronto in the next few days in a show of solidarity, and the Kings' Wayne Gretzky reportedly will be among them. Gretzky has criticized Bettman's postponement plans and the league's goal of implementing a system that would link salaries to revenues.
"The owners have a lot of money," Gretzky said. "They got about $200 million from expansion fees and we didn't see any of it."
Because of the uncertainty over when the season will begin, the NHL postponed its annual waiver draft and lifted the waiver draft trading deadline.
According to league rules, the draft must be held within seven days of the start of the season. Should an agreement be reached and the season start as scheduled, the draft would be held Friday or Saturday morning.