The National Hockey League (search) will lock out its players Thursday, starting a work stoppage that threatens to keep the sport off the ice for the entire 2004-05 season.

The long-expected decision was confirmed by NHL owners Wednesday following a meeting in New York. Management is demanding cost certainty, which players say would be tantamount to salary cap.

Even before the announcement, teams already had given commissioner Gary Bettman authority to cancel the season.

The sides have not met since a bargaining session last Thursday ended with the parties far apart, and there appears to be almost no chance the season will start as scheduled on Oct. 13.

"The present system doesn't work for us," said Jim Rutherford, the president and general manager of the Carolina Hurricanes (search). "We need a new system. We're all frustrated by it."

Owners have contributed $300 million to a league work-stoppage fund to help get them through a lockout, and the union has retained licensing money to help its members.

Players vow to resist a salary cap and, with the positions entrenched, a long stoppage is likely, one that could wipe out the Stanley Cup (search) final for the first time since 1919, when the series between Montreal and Seattle was stopped after five games due a Spanish influenza epidemic.

The 30 teams — 24 in the United States and six in Canada — had been set to start opening training camps on Thursday, the day after the expiration of the current labor contract, first agreed to in 1995 and extended two years later through Sept. 15, 2004.

Some players are expected to sign with European leagues, and others could join a six-team, four-on-four circuit called the Original Stars Hockey League (search), which is set to start play Friday in Barrie, Ontario. Others could go to a revived World Hockey Association (search), which plans to open Oct. 29 with eight teams playing 76 games apiece.