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OK, NHL Owners Say, <i> This </i> Is the Final Offer : Hockey: Bettman’s deadline passes, but players given one last chance to reach an agreement.

TIMES STAFF WRITER

Was Tuesday’s proposal the NHL’s final “final” offer?

According to Harry Sinden, general manager and president of the Boston Bruins, it was not.

“It was the final, final, final, final offer,” Sinden said.

That’s about as many “finals” as there have been supposed NHL take-it-or-leave-it propositions for the players’ union.

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The latest offer came Tuesday, after two grueling days of talks that included a 20-hour opening day. It also came after the noon EST deadline Commissioner Gary Bettman had set for canceling the season if an agreement was not reached in time to start the season Jan. 16 and play 50 games and a full complement of playoffs before July 1.

The Board of Governors, after fine-tuning an offer the players had turned down two days ago, authorized Bettman by a 19-7 margin to make another proposal and also to cancel the season, “if a new collective bargaining agreement is not reached promptly.”

When is promptly? “Very soon,” according to Arthur Pincus, the NHL’s vice president for public relations. “I don’t know what ‘very soon’ or ‘promptly’ really means.”

Promptly didn’t mean on Tuesday. “I’m going home,” Pincus said.

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So did Bettman and the union’s negotiating team. “Everybody’s very tired and we’re sleeping on it,” said the Chicago Blackhawks’ Jeremy Roenick.

But Bettman and the governors, to their dismay, have come to understand what “final” could mean to them.

It means that to avoid becoming the first professional sports league to cancel its season because of labor unrest, they had to bend toward the players’ position on several pivotal points:

--Giving clubs the right to walk away from three unfavorable arbitration decisions every two years, instead of two per club per year.

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--Increasing the rookie salary cap to $825,000, up $25,000, and no longer setting salary limits based on the round a player is chosen.

--Giving the union the right to re-open the agreement after the 1997-98 season, just as owners can.

--Reducing the age for the entry draft from 20 to 19 throughout the agreement. Eighteen-year-olds will have the option to enter the draft.

Owners did win on an issue dear to them, the age at which players qualify for unrestricted free agency.

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They refused a union plan that would have made players eligible at 30 in the final two years, instead setting it at 32 in the first three years of the agreement and at 31 in the last three. They had fought broadening free agency for fear it would continue the salary escalation that drove them to initiate the lockout on Oct. 1.

In Bettman’s next-to-last proposal, which was defeated by a 14-12 vote of the governors Tuesday afternoon, the initial age was set at 32 and went to 31 in the remaining five years.

The owners also avoided giving players retroactive pay this season, a point Goodenow had pushed for energetically.

Union representatives were to conduct a conference call to discuss the league’s proposal, but they had not done so by late Tuesday night. The possibility remained they would test Bettman’s resolve again and reject the proposal today, perhaps hoping for a better deal.

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“That was our last final offer, what was that, three days ago?” defenseman Darryl Sydor, the Kings’ assistant player representative, said of the proposal given to the players Saturday. “And how many last, final offers have there been since?”

Said Bob Corkum, the Mighty Ducks’ player representative: “It’s more acceptable, but we’re still giving more than we should. Off the top of my head, I don’t think (it will be approved).”

If it isn’t approved, it could spell the end of the season.

As matters stand, if Bettman remains firm on his Jan. 16 starting date--and that, after all was a “final” date--they will have only a few days on the ice and won’t play any exhibition games. The Ducks won’t be able to practice at The Pond because it is occupied by an ice show through Monday.

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“I think they would be making a terrible, terrible mistake and miscalculation if they reject it,” said Tony Tavares, the Ducks’ president. “We’re sick of talking. From our perspective, if they reject it, fine. We’ll start writing our refund checks. I’m sick of talking and sick of telling people, ‘Hang in there.’ It’s not fair to our fans.”

King General Manager Sam McMaster said he interpreted Bettman’s statement as a take-it-or-leave-it offer.

“I think this one means final and I think it’s because we negotiated in good faith between all parties for the last 36 hours,” he said. “The one we sent back had very minute changes and it is final.

“I believe there will be hockey. I’m an optimist and I always have been. It (the proposal) is something I think I can manage, something I think I can live with, and I think it’s something players can live with. They’re the only major professional sporting organization that doesn’t have a cap or a tax.”

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And a number of club executives are unhappy they didn’t get that cap, which Bettman had promised to deliver.

“Did we get everything we want? Not at all,” Sinden said, emphatically. “We started out with, and we are going to conclude with, knowing full well that we need a salary cap. We changed the cap to a tax and we didn’t get that, either.”

The governors’ first vote of the day followed an emotional debate. Sources said some governors were alarmed at the concessions Bettman was making, particularly on free agency and salary arbitration. On the second vote, they voted as much out of desperation as exasperation. “Some people sold their souls on this,” a governor said.

Whether they made a deal will be clear sometime today. “Is there going to be hockey? That’s better asked of the players’ association,” Tavares said. “There will be hockey if they accept the deal. If their thought is to come back and negotiate further, there won’t be hockey.”

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


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