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National Hockey League locks out its players

Sept. 14, 2012: Carolina Hurricanes' Jordan Staal leaves the locker room after the NHL hockey team's informal workout at Raleigh Center Ice in Raleigh, N.C.AP/The News and Observer

The clock struck midnight, and the NHL turned into another sports league closed for business.

Unable to reach agreement on a new labor deal, the National Hockey League locked out its players at 12:01 a.m. Sunday, the third major pro sport to impose a work stoppage in the last 18 months, behind the NFL and NBA.

The action also marks the fourth shutdown for the NHL since 1992, including a year-long dispute that forced the cancellation of the entire 2004-05 season when the league successfully held out for a salary cap.

That fight ended with the latest collective bargaining agreement, and when it ended Commissioner Gary Bettman followed through on his longstanding pledge to lock out the players if no deal was in place.

NHL Deputy Commissioner Bill Daly confirmed the shutdown was in effect. The union said it would have no comment.

The sides were so far apart in their discussions that they didn't even meet face-to-face for negotiations on Saturday.

The core issue is money -- how to split a $3.3 billion pot of revenue. The owners want to decrease the percentage of hockey-related revenue that goes to players, while the union wants a guarantee that players annually get at least the $1.8 billion in salaries paid out last season.

Hours before the deadline, the lockout was considered a foregone conclusion.

"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," Daly said in a statement earlier Saturday. "I'm sure that we will remain in contact in the coming days."

The dispute is latest chapter in labor unrest that has vexed American professional sports. The NFL was locked out for much of the offseason in 2011 while the last NBA season was shortened from 82 games to 66 and began on Christmas.

Baseball successfully reached a labor deal and 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.

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 a written statement. "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."

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.

"It's a sad situation for everybody. Nobody wants to be in this spot," Detroit Red Wings defenseman Niklas Kronwall said. "We couldn't agree on a deal. We see it one way, and the owners another way unfortunately."

One sign of the split: The NHL's website went from featuring current players to remembering great moments in the sport, such as the 1987 Canada Cup.

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 dates 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 Associated Press.

Bettman has insisted that hockey management is determined to come away with economic gains, even at the cost of another work stoppage. Financial 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 wants to reduce players' share to a range between 49 percent and 47 percent.

Its original offer was to cut it to 43 percent.

Bettman said the league's latest offer would be pulled off the table once the current CBA expired because the hardship 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.

NHL players struck in April 1992, causing 30 games to be postponed. This marks the third lockout under Bettman. The 1994-95 lockout ended after 103 days and the cancellation of 468 games.

The most recent stoppage 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.