Bettman intends to make counterproposal

TORONTO -- The NHL players' association offered an immediate 24 percent rollback of salaries Thursday as the centerpiece of a proposal handed to the league in an effort to end the season-long lockout.

"It will immediately reduce the value of every current player contract," NHLPA executive director Bob Goodenow said. "It will immediately set a dramatically lower base in the negotiation of new contracts and it contains numerous systemic changes in all the leverage points that are contained in the collective agreement."

The union said all current contracts would be cut, a move that would save NHL teams $270 million in the first year and $528 million over three years. The union's offer on Sept. 9 only included a 5 percent salary rollback.

"One aspect of the proposal is very significant," NHL commissioner Gary Bettman said. "That element is a recognition by the union of our economic condition, but it is a one-time element.

"We have said consistently that the focus must be on the overall systemic issues and the long-term needs and health of our game," he said.

By union estimates, the six-year, six-point proposal would save the NHL a total that exceeds $1 billion in that time span.

The salary rollback would change the dynamic for unsigned players, who would work out new deals based on the adjusted salary figures of comparable players and not on the value of their original contracts.

"It was shocking for me to hear it," said Dallas forward Bill Guerin, a member of the executive board. "That's a lot of money out of a guy's pocket to be giving up.

"The first thing guys are going to do is go over their own contract and run the numbers through their head, and that's natural, but this is what we felt was necessary to help the league get going and to help these teams restart and get their houses in order," he said.

Originally, the sides set up to meet on Friday, as well, but those talks were pushed back until next Tuesday. That session will be held in either Toronto or New York.

"We will fully review the union's proposal and respond," Bettman said. "It is our present intention to make a counterproposal."

Time is running short to work out a deal and still have a legitimate season. Three hundred eight-two regular-season games and the All-Star Game have already been canceled.

Bettman again declined to announce a drop-dead date that would make the NHL the first major North American league to cancel an entire season over a labor dispute.

"When we have the deal, we'll see what we can do about having a semblance of a season," Bettman said.

What the new proposal didn't contain was a link between league revenues and player salaries -- the cost certainty Bettman wants for the 30 clubs. The union again offered a luxury tax instead of a salary cap.

"I don't believe in a luxury tax," Bettman said.

That fundamental difference could kill this offer, too.

"If they want to come back with a linkage to a salary cap, then there will be no season," said Ottawa forward Daniel Alfredsson, who would stand to lose millions of a recently signed five-year deal.

The negotiating session was the first between the league and the NHLPA in three months. Without a deal in place, Bettman imposed the lockout that reached its 85th day on Thursday.

The sides met for about four hours at the NHL's office at the Air Canada Centre, a session set up when the union invited the league back to the table last week.

Bettman said the NHL was handed a binder with 10 tabs and added the league will need several days to read and review the 236 pages.

Besides the salary rollback, the union also offered a luxury tax that would penalize teams 20 cents for each dollar they spend between $45 million and $50 million. The penalty would increase to 25 percent the second year and 30 percent in the third.

Teams spending between $50 million and $60 million would be taxed 50 cents on the dollar the first year, 55 cents the second year and 60 cents the third. Those with payrolls above that would have to pay 60 cents for every dollar the first year, 65 cents the second and 70 cents the third year on each dollar over the threshold.

In addition, an offer was made to change arbitration and make it more like baseball's system in which clubs and players submit figures for an arbitrator to decide on.

An entry-level contract cap of $850,000 was also proposed, as well as a revenue-sharing plan to bring the bottom 15 teams within 30 percent of the revenues of the top 15 teams.

"This proposal demonstrates the players' sincere desire to get the game back on the ice, and while the concessions on our side are quite significant, we feel that our effort is a meaningful compromise to get a fair deal for both sides," Vancouver forward Trevor Linden, the NHLPA president, said.

Arenas have been given the go-ahead by the league to free dates previously reserved for hockey on a 45-day rolling basis. As of now, that means there won't be any NHL games before the latter part of January.

Bettman has said that teams lost a total of more than $1.8 billion over 10 years and that management will not agree to a deal without a defined relationship between revenue and salaries. Owners say teams lost $273 million in 2002-03 and $224 million last season.

An economic study commissioned by the NHL found that players get 75 percent of league revenues. The union has challenged many of the NHL's financial findings.

The league has been operating under the same collective bargaining agreement since 1995, when the last lockout went 103 days before a 48-game season was played. That deal was extended twice.