The two sides are about $7.5 million apart on a salary cap.
NEW YORK (AP) -- One more day, one final offer, and one last chance to save the hockey season.
The NHL made a take-it-or-leave-it pitch of a $42.5 million cap to the players' association Tuesday night, just hours before hockey was set to be canceled altogether. But the union responded with a counteroffer of a $49 million salary cap that was rejected by the league.
A few hours after the league's final offer, the union lowered its cap proposal from $52 million. But the NHL said it was still too high.
"If every team spent to the $49 million ... total player compensation would exceed what we spent last season," NHL commissioner Gary Bettman said in his second letter of the day to NHLPA executive director Bob Goodenow. "We cannot afford your proposal."
On Monday, the players' association said for the first time it would accept a salary cap once the NHL dropped its demand that league revenues be linked to player costs.
"We wish that the NHL had offered a 'no linkage' proposal before yesterday so that negotiations in that arena could have commenced sooner," Goodenow said in a letter to Bettman. "However, we recognize that they did not and we agree that time is short."
No time for bargaining
The league had bumped its salary-cap offer up from $40 million and gave the union until 11 a.m. Today to accept. Bettman said if the offer was rejected, the season would be canceled two hours later, according to a letter he sent to Goodenow.
In his first letter, Bettman said there was no time or flexibility for bargaining.
"This offer is not an invitation to begin negotiations -- it's too late for that," Bettman said. "This is our last effort to make a deal that's fair to the players and one that the clubs [hopefully] can afford. We have no more flexibility and there is no time for further negotiation."
In the union's counteroffer, teams would still be allowed to spend up to 10 percent above the threshold, but they would only be able to do it twice during the six years of the deal and would be subject to an escalating luxury tax on anything above $40 million.
The players' original soft-cap proposal on Monday permitted teams to go over the threshold three times.
The union's offer would also require the 30 teams to have a minimum payroll of $25 million, but clubs would be allowed to drop no more than 10 percent below the total twice during the deal.
Bettman scheduled a Wednesday news conference with the intention of announcing that there wouldn't be any hockey until at least next fall.
"Hopefully, the press conference will not be necessary," Bettman said in his letter.
Players surprised by new stance
That shifted the pressure to the players, some of whom stated Tuesday they were surprised that the union accepted a salary cap this late in the game.
"We probably could've gotten this thing done in the summertime," Chicago forward Matthew Barnaby said. "I'm just a little disappointed that it went this far to play poker and to have someone call your bluff."
NHL chief legal officer Bill Daly met one-on-one with players' association senior director Ted Saskin in Niagara Falls, N.Y., on Monday and presented an offer that removed the owners' desired link between league revenues and player costs.
The union refused to agree to that kind of tie-in because it doesn't trust what the league claims as its revenue total. Once the NHL dropped that requirement, the players came off their refusal of a salary cap.
"Obviously, the two sides have moved off of things they never said they'd move," free agent defenseman James Patrick said. "It would be a shame if you don't bridge the gap or come to some compromise."
A central component to all offers is a 24 percent rollback on existing contracts that was first presented by the players' association in its Dec. 9 framework. On the adjusted scale, only eight of the 30 teams would have finished last season above $40 million. The average team payroll was $33.95 million, with the rollback factored in.
Without the rollback, the Detroit Red Wings had the highest payroll at the end of last season with $82.9 million; Pittsburgh was the lowest at $21.65 million.