Mary Altaffer/AP/Press Association Images

NHL season under threat as commissioner locks out players

Gary Bettman and the owners officially locked out the players for the second time in eight years on Saturday.

A LABOUR STANDOFF between the NHL and its players spiralled on Saturday as a collective-bargaining agreement expired and league commissioner Gary Bettman locked out the players.

Bettman and the owners officially locked out the players for the second time in eight years when the current contract expired at midnight Eastern time (0400 GMT).

No negotiations took place on Saturday and there were no further talks scheduled, raising the spectre of a possible delayed start to the season for a league whose entire 2004-2005 campaign was lost to a work stoppage.

Training camps are scheduled to open next Friday and the season is supposed to start on October 11.

A league spokesman had said that the sides were so far apart that it would be fruitless to meet for one last time before the deadline.

“We spoke 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.

“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.”

The NHL Players’ Association had their own version of why there were no talks Saturday.

“We suggested that the parties meet in advance of the owners’ self-imposed deadline of midnight tonight,” said Steve Fehr, the NHLPA’s special counsel. “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.”

The sides last met formally on Wednesday, where each put forward its latest proposal.

If a deal could be completed over the next two weeks, it would still be possible to start the season on time.

The core economic stumbling block is the league’s demand that the players reduce their share of hockey-related revenues.

In the contract that ended the owner-imposed lockout in 2005, players reluctantly accepted a salary-cap system and took an immediate 24 percent rollback of existing contracts in exchange for 57 percent of revenues.

In their latest proposal, the NHL owners have offered a six-year deal with the players’ revenue share falling first to 49 percent and then 47 percent.

The gap is huge though.

The players have reportedly offered to give up some of their expected salary growth over the next three to five years. They believe it would drop their share of the revenues from 54.3 percent to 52.3 percent if the NHL sees an expected 7.1 percent growth.

Bettman had warned that the owners’ latest offer would be in effect until Saturday only, and that the league could take a harsher stance in future discussions.

Pittsburgh Penguins superstar Sidney Crosby said earlier he doesn’t believe the owners were as willing as the players to get a deal done before the deadline.

“Right now the two sides are pretty far apart,” Crosby said.

Toronto Maple Leafs defenceman John-Michael Liles accused the owners exaggerating their financial difficulties.

“It is unfortunate. The players want a fair deal,” Liles said.

Despite the labour woes player transactions have continued in the build-up to the lockout.

The Boston Bruins signed Canadian Milan Lucic Saturday to a three-year extension at $6 million a year.

The Phoenix Coyotes also made a couple of moves leading up to the lockout, signing captain and fan-favourite Shane Doan to a four-year, $21.2 million deal.

Like other clubs they sent some of their young stars to the American Hockey League, including Swedish defenceman Oliver Ekman-Larsson, who will head to the Portland Pirates.

The Edmonton Oilers also sent former first-overall pick Ryan Nugent-Hopkins to their AHL affiliate.

Other players have already made plans to play overseas. Pittsburgh Penguins star Evgeni Malkin has been working out with Magnitogorsk of the Kontinental Hockey League in his native Russia and is hoping to play for them as early as Thursday.

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