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Another Rejection, Offer for NHL

TIMES STAFF WRITER

Divided about their final attempt to save the season, the NHL’s Board of Governors on Saturday rejected a contract proposal by the players’ union and made a counteroffer that players must accept by noon EST Tuesday or the season will be canceled.

The governors voted, 19-7, to reject the proposal players made Wednesday. The Kings were among the seven, but then they unsuccessfully tried to change their vote. The Mighty Ducks were among the majority.

During a seven-hour session that frequently grew heated, the governors formulated a counteroffer that bowed to the union’s refusal to accept a payroll tax. The deal, which would begin this season and expire on Sept. 15, 2000, contains a provision for the NHL to renegotiate after the 1997-98 season. It was approved by a 20-6 vote of the governors. Hartford, Quebec and Florida are among the known dissenters; the Kings and Mighty Ducks approved.

“Is it as good a deal as I’d hoped 16 months ago (when negotiations began)? No. I expected to end up with a salary cap,” said Norm Green, owner of the Dallas Stars. “But we can make a living on it.”

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Bowing to the owners’ insistence on slowing salary growth--but jeopardizing the chances players will accept it--the counteroffer raises the eligibility age for free agency to 32, one year older than the last agreement and two years older than the union had last proposed.

It also raises the entry-draft age two years to 20 and imposes limits on salary arbitration for Group 2 (mid-career) players, including permitting clubs to walk away from two unfavorable decisions per season.

However, it would restore game rosters to 18 skaters and two goaltenders, after cutting training camp rosters to 17 and two. Rookies would have a maximum salary of $825,000 this year if they are drafted in the first round, the cap rising to $1,050,000 in 2000.

Players’ initial reactions indicated that if a deal is made, it will be with great reluctance. They have empowered their negotiating committee to accept or reject a proposal, but a rank-and-file vote might be taken. The players’ association had no comment Saturday.

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“That (32-year-old free agency) is not going to fly right there. No chance,” Detroit Red Wing defenseman Bob Rouse said. “How many 32-year-olds are there in the league? There’s no chance it will even go to a vote. . . .

“I might as well be making my plans . . . for what I’ll be doing next week because I won’t be playing hockey in the NHL.”

Said Mighty Duck defenseman Randy Ladouceur: “From what I’ve heard, free agency at 32 is going to be a stickler, and the draft thing might be a problem as well. But the big thing so far is the arbitration. The bulk of the association falls under the Group 2 category.”

Commissioner Gary Bettman said that, while he is willing to answer any questions union chief Bob Goodenow might have about the proposal, he is not open to further negotiations.

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“This is our best shot at trying to get it done,” Bettman said. “It has been made clear to us that the players’ union would not accept a tax, and we are taking them at their word and fitting their needs. . . .

“There are a number of owners who believe a league can best operate as a partnership with players, with revenue sharing and a salary cap. The success of the NBA and NFL have not been missed. The fact is that we’re the only major sport that does not have have a cap, since baseball implemented a cap.

“There were some owners who believed losing the season was worth it.”

Despite Bettman’s assertion that the league would not change its offer, players talked of movement.

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"(The withdrawal of the tax) is a major roadblock removed,” said Rob Blake, the Kings’ union representative, “but there’s still a lot--arbitration, free agency--that has to be ironed out.

Teammate Pat Conacher, however, was doubtful the union will agree to terms.

“I just can’t be very optimistic. I can’t see it happening,” he said.

Of the league’s inclusion of a clause allowing for renegotiation, he said, “That tells you something right there. They don’t want us to sign it. They want us to turn it down. Everything then falls on the players. Then Gary Bettman is saved.”

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Tony Tavares, president of the Mighty Ducks, said the proposal met most of the union’s demands.

“I hope the proposal is sufficient to get a season. I think it shows compromise on the owners’ part,” he said.

“I think it’s important for the sport of hockey that we play. . . . Would we have made this offer in September? No. This was a last-ditch effort to save the season, which, if it was lost, would be a disaster for both parties.”

Bettman declined to predict whether the union will take the deal. “I will be hopeful they will accept it,” he said. “We all know what the consequences are of not having a season by Tuesday at noon.”

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Times staff writers Elliott Teaford and Lisa Dillman contributed to this story.


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