NEW YORK – With its do-or-die deadline come and gone and no deal in sight, the NHL (search) circled Wednesday as the day it would call off what little was left of a decimated season, The Associated Press learned Monday.
Despite a last-gasp meeting Monday between the league and the players' union, commissioner Gary Bettman (search) still planned to cancel the remaining games, a source close to the negotiations said on condition of anonymity.
The NHL announced that Bettman would speak at a news conference Wednesday in New York, but declined to give details.
It would become the first major professional league in North America to lose an entire season because of a labor dispute. The Stanley Cup (search) has been awarded every year since 1919, when a flu epidemic canceled the finals.
But more than two-thirds of the season and the All-Star game already have been lost to a lockout that started Sept. 16. The major stumbling block to an agreement has been the league's insistence on a salary cap.
Bettman said the sides needed to start putting a deal on paper by last weekend if the NHL was going to hold a 28-game season and a full 16-team playoff. The regular season normally is 82 games.
"It is clear to me that if we're not working on a written document by this weekend, I don't see how we can play any semblance of a season," Bettman said last week. "Obviously we will listen to everything the union has to say, but we've given all we can give and gone as far as we can go."
Even a session with a federal mediator Sunday in Washington couldn't produce an agreement.
But the league initiated more talks Monday, the source said. Only NHL chief legal officer Bill Daly and union senior director Ted Saskin were present, two other sources close to the negotiations told the AP on condition of anonymity.
Bettman said the 30 NHL teams need to have cost certainty to survive and the only way he could guarantee that was with a salary cap that linked league revenues to player costs.
The league has said teams lost $273 million in 2002-03 and $224 million last season, and an economic study commissioned by the NHL found that players get 75 percent of league revenues. The union has challenged those figures.
A cap was an automatic deal-breaker for the union even though it agreed that the financial landscape had to change. The players' association contended that there are many other ways to fix it.
Monday, the 152nd day of the lockout, was to have been the last day of the All-Star break; the festivities in Atlanta were called off months earlier. So far, 824 of the 1,230 regular-season games have been lost.
The sides have traded proposals throughout the lockout, but the salary cap has always been the sticking point. Other issues such as arbitration, revenue-sharing, and rookie caps never reached the true negotiating stage because the sides couldn't agree on the big issue.
In recent days, the union and league seemed adamant that they wouldn't budge.
"We're done," Saskin said Thursday after talks broke off.
On Sunday, Daly said: "We will not be reaching out to them."