NHL Commissioner Gary Bettman said last night he is prepared to announce the cancellation of the hockey season this weekend if the owners and players' union do not have an agreement by then.
"It is clear to me that if we're not working on a written document memorializing an agreement this weekend, I don't see how we can play any semblance of a season," Bettman said in a hastily called news conference in Toronto last night.
If a last-minute deal is reached, Bettman said, there would be a 28-game regular season and the playoff structure would be preserved.
Bettman's news conference followed a secret meeting in which the NHL made a last-minute compromise to the NHL Players Association in which the owners said they would accept the union's Dec. 9 proposal, which called for a 24 percent across-the-board rollback on all existing player contracts and a system that taxes teams for exceeding payroll thresholds. But the owners' offer called for the proposed collective bargaining agreement to automatically revert to a strict salary cap limiting payrolls if the union's payroll tax fails to adequately address the salary issue.
NHLPA Executive Director Bob Goodenow followed Bettman's news conference with one of his own last night, in which he called the league's latest offer a "transparent attempt" to impose a salary cap.
Goodenow agreed that time was running out.
"The weekend would be a drop-dead point," Goodenow said. "Time is so short. If there will be an agreement, the only way to come about it is to keep talking."
Also included in that six-year offer, which could be reopened by the union after four years, was a profit-sharing plan that would allow the players' union to evenly split revenue over a negotiated level with the league.
The union rejected the NHL's offer but invited Bettman and his staff to stay in Toronto last night for further talks. The union opposes any fixed limits on salaries and any system that ties salaries to league revenue.
The owners locked out the players Sept. 15, claiming the league lost $500 million over the last two season. The union has said the NHL's finances aren't as bad as the league depicts.
The lockout reached its 147th day yesterday, resulting in the cancellation of 813 of the 1,230 regular season games, as well as the All-Star Game that would have been played in Atlanta this weekend.
Bettman last night gave little hope of reaching an agreement in time to salvage the season.
"We don't seem to be able to come up with middle or common ground or third way to do this," Bettman said. "There are certain things we need in a collective bargaining agreement. . . . The system we are talking about are systems where we know what we can afford to pay. We don't want a future where we are spending more than we can afford. We've had enough of that."