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NHL Will Put Onus on Players : Hockey: Owners expected to turn down latest offer, then counter with final chance.

TIMES STAFF WRITER

An offer the NHL Players Assn. termed its best isn’t good enough to sway the league’s Board of Governors to end the lockout--but the hockey season isn’t doomed yet.

Club executives and players expect that after the board rebuffs the proposal Saturday during a meeting in New York, Commissioner Gary Bettman will present a counterproposal and attach a “drop-dead” deadline on Monday for a response.

That would put the onus on players if the season is canceled, instead of forcing owners to make the final negative move. If the counterproposal is accepted by the union, a seven-day training period can be held and the season can start Jan. 16, which Bettman last week set as the latest date to begin a 50-game schedule.

The counterproposal will be submitted in two forms, one with a payroll tax and one without.

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“Monday night is the absolute deadline,” one governor said.

Said another: “If there’s a counterproposal, it definitely has to be acceptable by midnight Monday. I don’t think (Bettman) can change the 16th (as the starting) date.”

The players’ 13-page proposal was scorned by general managers and club presidents.

“As far as the Mighty Ducks are concerned, it won’t fly,” General Manager Jack Ferreira said. “It’s still not enough.

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“What’s my gut feeling? No season, that’s my gut feeling as it stands now.”

Joe Cohen, who will represent the Kings on Saturday, also thought the proposal was unsatisfactory.

“As it exists, it’s not something we could vote for,” he said. “We are trying to figure out what we can vote for, given the framework we have.”

Said David LeFevre, governor of the Tampa Bay Lightning: “We think the proposal is insufficient. It’s not what we’ve been talking about.”

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Rod Bryden, governor and chairman of the Ottawa Senators, also said players had not made enough concessions to cure the league’s financial problems.

“We won’t accept window dressing,” Bryden said.

The proposal’s key provisions were unrestricted free agency at age 30--a year earlier than in the last agreement but two years earlier than in the NHL’s last offer--and allowing clubs to walk away from salary arbitration decisions.

It also said a player who loses an arbitration decision could become a free agent, but his club could retain his rights by offering him a 15% increase over his previous salary. In addition, it set the rookie salary cap at $900,000, $100,000 more than the NHL suggested.

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The offer does not include a payroll tax, which the NHL supports as a way to slow salary escalation and help subsidize small-market clubs.

“The point we want to make is, this is our last proposal,” King defenseman Rob Blake said. “If it’s turned down on Saturday, that’s it. We’re not going to accept any counteroffer. . . .

“We feel we’ve made a tremendous amount of concessions. Either accept it or don’t.”

There was no contact between the union and the league Thursday, but there were flurries of activity.

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Sources said NHL officials “had their pencils working” on their counteroffer and the union held conference calls among team representatives to update players and prepare them for a new deadline.

“Certainly, there will be many scars left from this,” Ken Baumgartner, a vice president of the NHLPA, told the Toronto Sun. “It’s past the point of anyone winning or losing. We’re probably all losers in this process.”

Times staff writer Lisa Dillman contributed to this story.


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