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New York - The chance of averting another NHL lockout all but disappeared long before midnight.
With only a few hours left before NHL Commissioner Gary Bettman made good on his vow to shut down the league Saturday night without a new collective bargaining agreement with the players' association, there were no signs either side would budge and return to the negotiating table. A lockout had become such a foregone conclusion, that an NHL spokesman said the league wouldn't even make an official announcement at midnight that a work stoppage was in effect. The clock itself would be the confirmation.
"We talked with the union this morning, and in light of the fact that they have nothing new to offer, or any substantive response to our last proposal, there would be nothing gained by convening a bargaining session at this time," NHL Deputy Commissioner Bill Daly said in a statement Saturday. "I'm sure that we will remain in contact in the coming days."
Barring a sudden change of heart, this will be the league's fourth work stoppage since 1992. This latest action adds to a landscape of labor unrest across American professional sports. The lockout will be the third to hit a major sports league in 18 months, following ones in the NFL and the NBA.
Despite a third straight day of telephone discussions between Daly and players' association special counsel Steve Fehr, the brother of NHLPA executive director Donald Fehr, hopes of face-to-face talks were dashed early Saturday.
"We suggested that the parties meet in advance of the owners' self-imposed deadline of midnight tonight," Steve Fehr said Saturday in an emailed statement to the AP. "Don Fehr, myself and several players on the Negotiating Committee were in the City and prepared to meet. The NHL said that it saw no purpose in having a formal meeting.
"There have been and continue to be private, informal discussions between representatives of both sides."
For nearly a year, Bettman has said he would lock out players when the current CBA expires. It now appears unlikely that training camps will open next week. The regular season is scheduled to begin Oct. 11, but that is also in peril.
"There's a lot of stuff that still needs to be sorted out. Hopefully things will heat up in the next couple of weeks," said forward Milan Lucic, who agreed to a three-year extension with the Boston Bruins on Saturday that will pay him an average of $6 million annually. "There's obviously a little bit of concern, but right now all you can do is stay optimistic and stay positive and hope that a deal will get done."
All four of the major leagues in the United States - football, basketball, baseball and hockey - have gone through labor negotiations within the past couple of years. Both the NFL and NBA went into lockouts, and though the NFL missed no regular-season games, the 2011-12 NBA season was shortened. Some have suggested that the fact MLB didn't have a work stoppage has to do with the fact that baseball has no salary cap, allowing for more wiggle room in negotiations.
While the NHL lockout might not wipe out the whole season as the one in 2004-05 did, a sizeable chunk of games could be lost without productive talks soon.
In jeopardy are a couple of key items on the calendar: the New Year's Day outdoor Winter Classic at 115,000-seat Michigan Stadium between the host Detroit Red Wings and the Toronto Maple Leafs; and the Jan. 27 All-Star game hosted by the Columbus Blue Jackets, one of the league's struggling small-market teams.
The sides traded proposals Wednesday, but neither new offer moved them closer to a deal. The lack of progress then made a lockout almost inevitable.
"I think it's fair to say there was no realistic expectation to avoid lockout as of developments on Wednesday and Thursday," Daly told the AP.
Bettman has insisted that hockey management is determined to come away with economic gains, even if it forces another work stoppage. Damage is certain to occur almost immediately, and there is no telling how jilted fans and sponsors will react to another shutdown, especially if it lasts through the fall and into the winter.
Players are concerned management hasn't addressed the league's financial problems by re-examining the teams' revenue-sharing formula. Having made several big concessions to reach a deal in 2005, the union doesn't think it should have to make more this time after record financial growth.
Once the lockout was imposed in September 2004, the sides didn't get back together until December. That stalemate was finally resolved in July 2005.
Players absorbed a salary-cap system - the major issue then - and took an immediate 24 percent rollback of existing contracts in exchange for 57 percent of hockey-related revenues. The NHL now says that figure is too high, and is willing to have another league shutdown to reduce that share to 49 percent to 47 percent.
Its original offer was to cut it to 43 percent, and an updated proposal raised it to 46 before another new offer pushed it a little higher Wednesday, the last time the sides met.
The most recent proposal from the league - with a six-year term - came in direct response to one put forth by the union earlier Wednesday that was rejected as being similar to the players' two previous offers.
Instead of making a percentage-based offer, the union is seeking a deal that would guarantee players annually at least the $1.8 billion in salaries paid out last season.
Bettman said the league's latest offer would be pulled off the table once the current CBA expired because immediate damage caused by a lockout would force the NHL to reassess what it could then offer.
Without a philosophical difference this time over the salary cap, the sides merely have to figure out a way to divide hockey revenues that grew from $2.1 billion to $3.3 billion under the expiring deal.
On Friday, the Quebec labor relations board rejected a request from the players' association for a temporary injunction against a potential lockout in Quebec. But the board also ruled that more hearings are needed to make a final decision.
With the ruling, Canadiens players will be locked out with their colleagues, at least for now.
The NHLPA argued that because it isn't certified as a union with the province, its members can't be locked out under Quebec labor law.
A similar request was filed late Thursday with the Alberta labor relations board. NHLPA director of operations Alexandra Dagg said the aim was to prevent players from the Edmonton Oilers and Calgary Flames from being locked out.
In Alberta, the union will argue that proper labor negotiating procedure wasn't followed, including using a mediator.
Donald Fehr took over as the head of the players' association in 2010 after he led baseball players through three work stoppages in the 1980s and "90s.
NHL players struck in April 1992, causing 30 games to be postponed. This would be the third lockout under Bettman. The 1994-95 lockout ended after 103 days and the cancellation of 468 games.
The most recent lockout was settled after 301 days and a month after the league would have awarded the Stanley Cup. It marked the first time a North American professional sports league lost an entire season because of a labor dispute, and the first time the Stanley Cup wasn't handed out since 1919, when a flu epidemic prevented a champion from being crowned.