TORONTO - The National Hockey League (NHL) slipped quietly into its third lockout in 18 years on Sunday when Saturday's midnight deadline for a new collective bargaining agreement (CBA) passed without players and owners reaching a deal.
NHL commissioner Gary Bettman had warned players the league would lock them out if a new CBA was not place when the current pact expired and the moment fans had dreaded came but without either side making a formal announcement.
The owners and players contacted each other early on Saturday but with no movement from the league or union there was nothing to spark last-ditch talks.
"We spoke today and determined that there was no point in convening a formal bargaining session in light of the fact that neither side is in a position to move off of its last proposal," NHL Deputy Commissioner Bill Daly said in a statement on the league's official website.
"I'm sure we will keep in touch in the coming days and schedule meetings to the extent they might be useful or appropriate. We are sorry for where we are. Not what we hoped or expected."
With memories of the bitter labor dispute that wiped out the entire 2004-05 season still fresh in their minds, frustrated fans appear resigned that the NHL regular season was unlikely to open as scheduled on Oct. 11.
Players were to start reporting to training camps on Sept. 21 but it was now expected that sometime next week Bettman will begin announcing the cancellation of pre-season games.
The NHL denied on Saturday that it had plans in place to lay off staff, but should negotiations drag on, the league and teams will inevitably start trimming personnel and expenses.
Players had already begun looking for safe havens to ride out the labor dispute.
NHL Most Valuable Player Evgeni Malkin of the Pittsburgh Penguins and Ottawa Senators defenseman Sergei Gonchar were reportedly in Russia practicing with Magnitogorsk of the Kontinental Hockey League and were expected to suit up for their new teams next week.
The Russian league, which offers attractive salaries, was looming as the destination of choice for many players looking for work but has guidelines in place to ensure teams only opened their doors to the NHL's best.
Sidney Crosby, the NHL's best known and most popular player, had also said if talks stallled he too would explore playing in Europe.
"If you look at both (proposals), yeah they're definitely different," said Crosby. "But if you have a non-bias opinion, you look at the facts, I think our mindset and the direction we're going is one that seems like it's a little bit more fair for both sides.
"I'm a hockey player. I want to keep going," added Crosby.
If the bargaining process followed the same path as before, fans and players could be in for long dreary winter.
After Bettman announced the league was locking out players in 2004 it was three months before the feuding sides even returned to the negotiating table.
The main sticking point in the current dispute, which threatens a fourth work stoppage in 20 years, lay with the two sides at odds over how to divide $3.3 billion in revenue.
The NHL, which enjoyed record-breaking revenues last season, initially wanted players to cut their share of hockey-related revenue to 43 percent from 57 percent but amended that to a six-year deal that starts at 49 percent and drops to 47 percent.
The offer from the NHL Players' Association (NHLPA) was tied to projected future revenues with players willing to take a smaller slice of the pie as the league grows. The union's offer opened with players getting 54.3 percent of revenues and dipping to 52.7 percent.
The NHL and NHL players association (NHLPA) exchanged proposals on Wednesday in New York and then dug in on Thursday displaying their solidarity and outlining their positions in well choreographed news briefings.
The two sides wasted no time rolling out the rhetoric, placing the blame for a lockout and any damage it would cause to the game at each other's feet.
"Hockey is poised to really move in the next three or four years to fundamentally different place than it has been before," said Donald Fehr head of the NHLPA on Thursday. "The question is whether the disagreement we are now having is going to screw that up.
"If so that is bad and unfortunate. We ought to be doing we can to avoid it." (Editing by Julian Linden)