To lend some interest to today's all-star practice session, the host Hartford Whalers planned competition among the players to determine the fastest skater and the possessor of the hardest shot.

Unfortunately, the Whalers failed to notify either the players or fellow NHL teams of what had been set up. When word finally filtered down, the players quickly whistled a halt to the proceedings.

Instead, the 5,000 fans who paid $1 apiece for what was billed as a two-hour show were treated to a penalty-shot competition as the highlight of a 50-minute session. The penalty shots also replaced the advertised contests as the first intermission feature on ESPN's all-star telecast.

The crowd was told that the skills competition had been canceled because of "technical difficulties." The Whalers informed the media that the format had been altered because of "failure of the equipment." Actually, the NHL Players Association refused to approve it.

"We thought we might have some injuries," said New York Islanders center Bryan Trottier, president of the NHLPA. "Also, there was not enough time to notify everybody and make everybody aware of it. We kept running into different snags, but I don't want to get into specifics."

Asked if fear of injury was the primary consideration in the cancellation, Trottier replied, "Yes, plus the competitive aspect of it. We don't feel we want to prove we're better than anybody else in the various skills.

"I hope people were entertained by the penalty shots. It's one of the most exciting aspects of hockey."

In that competition, each of the 36 skaters, plus honorary captains Phil Esposito and Gordie Howe, took one shot at a goalie from the opposing conference and the Prince of Wales won, 9-6.

The fans were delighted when Hartford's lone all-star, Sylvain Turgeon, beat Edmonton's Grant Fuhr. Neither Washington player was successful, with Fuhr stopping Mike Gartner and teammate Andy Moog foiling Rod Langway.

Howe was stopped by Fuhr but his son, Philadelphia defenseman Mark, immediately made up for it by beating Fuhr. Esposito scored against Quebec goalie Mario Gosselin and Edmonton's Wayne Gretzky scored against Philadelphia's Bob Froese.

ESPN was thwarted in another area, when the NHL abruptly canceled advertised interviews by Tom Mees at the benches during the game. The official reason was "lack of room on the bench."

Representatives of the players association met with the league's owner-player executive committee today in the first of what figure to be dozens of sessions before the 1986-87 season.

The collective bargaining agreement, originally scheduled to expire in June 1987, has been terminated by the NHLPA effective Sept. 15. The players are seeking a more reasonable system of free agency than the current compensation clause that has stifled player movement.

Alan Eagleson, executive director of the NHLPA, said his organization was seeking unrestricted free agency after a certain number of years' experience.

"The least we will accept is the elimination of the right of first refusal and removal of compensation for players on two-way contracts," Eagleson said.

Currently, a team signing a free agent must give up draft choices and/or players according to a formula based on salary. Regardless, a team can keep a player by matching the salary offer of his new team.

Many players have two-way contracts, according to which they are paid at one scale while in the NHL and another, far lower rate, if sent to the minors.

The NHLPA also is seeking an improved pension plan, plus benefits to help start new careers.

NHL President John Ziegler declined to discuss specifics on the owners' side, saying, "Instead of disputing and disagreeing in the media, we'll do it across the table. The other way gets misunderstood and polarizes people."

Although a strike would seem a strong possibility and Ziegler noted that, "It's foolhardy to think the players will not strike," Gretzky seemed to put things in perspective when he said, "I know the two sides look pretty far apart right now, but I think you'll see them mellowing by September."

The Washington Capitals have announced prices for playoff tickets and they reflect a $1 increase across the board over last season.

For the first two rounds, tickets will be $21, $19 and $15, with season-ticket holders paying $2 less per ticket. Should Washington play in either the Prince of Wales Conference final or the Stanley Cup final, prices will be $25, $23 and $19, with season-ticket holders again getting a $2 break.

Those figures are quite low compared with the rest of the Patrick Division. Tickets last season went as high as $26.25 in Philadelphia, $28 for the New York Rangers and $35 for the New York Islanders.

John McMullen, owner of the New Jersey Devils, gave General Manager Max McNab and Coach Doug Carpenter a vote of confidence today and vowed to keep the team in New Jersey.

"I have no intention of selling the team or of transferring the franchise," McMullen told a group of reporters at an informal breakfast. "We're going to build up the team the same way the Washington Capitals built themselves up."

McMullen, a New Jersey native, added, "They wanted me to buy the Washington Capitals four years ago, but they would have had to stay there. I felt I owed something to the state of New Jersey, which is why I bought the Colorado Rockies instead and moved them."