NEW YORK – The NHL (search) canceled what little was left of the season Wednesday after a series of last-minute offers were rejected on the final day of negotiations.
A lockout over a salary cap shut down the game before it ever got a chance to start in October. Now the NHL, already low on the popularity scale in the United States, becomes the first major pro sports league in North America to lose an entire season to a labor dispute.
"As I stand before you today, it is my sad duty to announce ... it no longer is practical to conduct even an abbreviated season," commissioner Gary Bettman (search) said. "Accordingly, I have no choice but to announce the formal cancellation of play for 2004-05."
"This is a sad, regrettable day that all of us wish could have been avoided," he said.
Bettman said the sides would continue working to get an agreement.
"We're planning to have hockey next season," he said.
A few hours later, NHLPA executive director Bob Goodenow (search) stressed that the players had given a lot of ground. "Every offer by the players moved in the owners' direction," Goodenow said at a press conference in Toronto, where the union is based.
"Keep one thing perfectly clear," he said. "The players never asked for more money — they just asked for a marketplace."
"The scary part now for hockey is do the fans come back? We're not baseball, we're not the national pastime," Nashville forward Jim McKenzie (search) said.
The league and players' union traded a flurry of proposals and letters Tuesday night, but could never agree on a cap. The players proposed $49 million per team; the owners said $42.5 million. But a series of conditions and fine print in both proposals made the offers farther apart than just $6.5 million per team.
"We weren't as close as people were speculating," Bettman said.
Although Bettman was unequivocal in announcing the cancellation, Detroit Red Wings captain Steve Yzerman (search) held out hope that some kind of a miracle was still possible.
"If you read into what (Bettman) said, it sounds like there is still an opportunity to get things done," Yzerman said. "The principles are there to make a deal, so I still think something can happen in the next day or two, because we're really not that far apart."
Goodenow was less optimistic.
"I think it's a fresh start and everything is off the table," he said. "It's a totally new environment. That much is for sure.
"As far as anything happening this afternoon, it's not happening."
This will be just the second time the Stanley Cup (search) isn't awarded since Canadian governor general Lord Stanley first had the idea for a North American champion trophy in 1893; the last was 1919, when a flu epidemic forced the finals to be called off in the then 2-year-old league. There was a lockout in 1994-95 that ended in time for teams to play 48 games, still more than half the regular season.
"We profoundly regret the suffering this has caused our fans, our business partners and the thousands of people who depend on our industry for their livelihoods," Bettman said.
"If you want to know how I feel, I'll summarize it in one word — terrible," he said.
Before Monday, the idea of a salary cap was a deal-breaker for the players' association but the union gave in and said it would accept one when the NHL dropped its insistence that there be a link between revenues and player costs.
That still wasn't enough to end the lockout that started on Sept. 16 and ultimately wiped out the entire 1,230-game schedule and the playoffs.
And now, that offer is off the table.
"By necessity we have to go back to linkage since no one knows what the damage to the sport will be," Bettman said.
The NHL's last game came in June, when the Tampa Bay Lightning beat Calgary 2-1 in Game 7 to win the Stanley Cup.
Since then, a lot of stars have moved on, going overseas to play. Jaromir Jagr, Vincent Lecavalier, Teemu Selanne, Joe Thornton and Saku Koivu are among the over 300 of the league's 700-plus players who spent part of this season playing in Europe.
For other older players, such as Mario Lemieux, Mark Messier and Dominik Hasek, the cancellation puts their careers in limbo.
"This is a tragedy for the players," Bettman said. "Their careers are short and this is money and opportunity they'll never get back," Bettman said.
And who knows when Canadian phenom Sidney Crosby will be able to get into the league, or what team he'll eventually play for. Since there was no season, there probably won't be an entry draft in June.
An agreement must be place for the draft to be held, and there is no clear-cut way to determine the picking order once a deal is reached. Washington had the No. 1 selection last year and grabbed Russian sensation Alexander Ovechkin. No doubt the Capitals would love to go first again to pick Crosby.
Taking a year off, or more, will only push the league further off the radar screen.
But this was known back in 1998 when NHL teams began preparing for this possibility by creating a $300 million war chest. The collective bargaining agreement, that expired on Sept. 15, was extended twice after it was originally signed in 1994. That allowed for the NHL to complete its expansion plans without an interruption of play.
"We lived through a decade of a collective bargaining agreement that didn't work," Bettman said. "It doesn't matter whose fault it was."
A year ago, pessimists said that at least one season was sure to be lost and that two was not out of the question.
"We never doubted that the union had the support and the backing of its players," Bettman said. "I hope when this is over they'll think that it's worth it."