NEW YORK -- The NHL postponed the start of its season indefinitely yesterday and moved into a standoff with its players union.
That situation became apparent when commissioner Gary Bettman rejected the NHL Players Association's latest proposal as not only unacceptable but "a step backward."
Bettman said that the board of governors, assembled on a dais at the New York Sheraton, was unanimous in its decision to not open the season unless a collective bargaining agreement is reached.
Bettman had turned down an NHLPA offer that would have opened the season as scheduled Oct. 1 and said he would reconsider the union offer again closer to a new opening day, Oct. 15.
Needless to say, without a miracle, the NHL will not be playing on Saturday.
Bettman said the union's latest proposal -- for a 7 percent tax on salaries and a 3 percent tax on gate receipts designed to raise a $20 million pool to help small-market teams -- showed "there was no meaningful progress" and that the union's proposal was neither comprehensive nor demonstrative of any significant movement toward addressing the owners' concerns.
"In fact," said Bettman, "the board was really baffled by the union's course of conduct over the last 10 days, given their inexplicable delays in meeting."
Those words managed to bring the negotiations to a stop and put the 84-game season in jeopardy.
"Judging by today's unfortunate decision to reject our compromise proposal and to continue the lockout, it's apparent the NHL is not interested in the fans, the game or small markets," said NHLPA executive director Bob Goodenow via a conference call from NHLPA headquarters in Toronto. "They are committed only to a fight with the players.
"As long as the owners are demanding a tax that is a virtual salary cap, we have nothing to talk about."
Goodenow added there "is not much hope" for a quick or early settlement and that while he is not going to predict the length of the lockout, he said, "It could go on for a month or a year."
The NHL has proposed a graduated salary tax plan that would penalize teams up to 1.22 times their payrolls for exceeding the average team payroll. The scale would begin with a rate of 0.5 percent for every $325,000 above the league average.
The players say the payroll tax is so punitive that it would act as a cap.
Yesterday, the owners were not exactly denying that, but said that their proposal:
* Guarantees that each team will spend a minimum amount on salaries, forcing lower-spending teams to spend more.
* Guarantees that player salaries will not fall below current levels.
* Guarantees that salaries will be increased each year to reflect ,, growth in league revenues.
* Promises that the subsidy pool will be at least a minimum amount.
Bettman, however, warned that the league's last proposal could be changed to the point of taking back offers on the table, including the 19 items such as preseason travel expenses and insurance that were taken away Aug. 1 and promised to be returned if an agreement could be reached by Saturday.
"We can never stop the overspending on our own," said Washington Capitals owner Abe Pollin, who as Washington Bullets owner was chairman of the NBA's 1983 labor committee that created that sport's salary cap structure. "In the NBA, we offered the players 53 percent of our profits. The average salary then was $250,000. Now it's $1.6 million. How have the players suffered? They haven't, and the owners have done well.
"But we can't even get the NHL players to talk to us about a salary cap. It's not a dirty word. We can't stop the [upward salary spiral] by ourselves, because there is more than one someone out there who will spend the money even if you don't. I've been in this business for 30 years and it's been happening all the time. . . . Until you cap salaries, it's going to continue."
Capitals president Dick Patrick called the owners' plan one of Pavlovian "behavior modification."
Every time an owner overspends, he gets a financial shock.
When the players argue that the shock will be so great that it will act as a cap and prevent any revenues from being shared with small-market teams, Patrick argues that if the overspending on salaries is controlled, "the system will correct itself and you eventually won't need a pool of money for smaller markets."
The owners are united to get a salary cap, even if it costs them a major part of the season and all the popularity the sport gained during last season's Stanley Cup playoffs.
The players' only options are to swallow the cap or continue to be unpaid and locked out.
While Bettman and Goodenow said they ended their personal conversation by saying that they will keep the lines of communication open, neither appeared about to take the first step toward resuming talks.
"When Bob is ready to resume, I'm open to getting down to business," said Bettman. But he didn't say he'd call for a date.
"There has to be a reason to talk," said Goodenow.