The NHL said there will be no bargaining with the players' union Saturday, leaving nothing to stop a lockout.
This will be the league's fourth work stoppage since 1992, and this latest action adds to a landscape of labor unrest across American professional sports. The lockout will be the third to hit a major sports league in 18 months, following ones in the NFL and the NBA.
NHL deputy commissioner Bill Daly told The Associated Press in an email that the sides have spoken by telephone, but there will be "no formal bargaining" before the midnight deadline. He had conferred with players' association special counsel Steve Fehr, the brother of NHLPA executive director Donald Fehr, to see if there would be face-to-face talks.
This was the third straight day the sides spoke by phone but avoided the negotiating table.
For nearly a year, NHL Commissioner Gary Bettman has said he would lock out players if a collective bargaining agreement wasn't set by the time the current one expires.
It now appears unlikely that training camps will open next week. The regular season had been scheduled to begin Oct. 11, but that is also in peril.
"There's a lot of stuff that still needs to be sorted out. Hopefully things will heat up in the next couple of weeks," said forward Milan Lucic, who agreed to a three-year extension with the Boston Bruins on Saturday that will pay him an average of $6 million annually. "There's obviously a little bit of concern, but right now all you can do is stay optimistic and stay positive and hope that a deal will get done."
While this lockout might not wipe out the whole season as the one in 2004-05 did, a good chunk of games could be lost without productive talks soon.
In jeopardy are a couple of key items 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 AP.
Bettman has insisted that hockey management is determined to come away with economic gains, even if it forces another work stoppage. 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.
Bettman has repeatedly said that the NHL won't operate under the CBA that ended the previous lockout in July 2005. Once that lockout was imposed in September 2004, the sides didn't get back together again until December.
Players absorbed a salary-cap system and took an immediate 24 percent rollback of existing contracts in 2005 in exchange for 57 percent of hockey-related revenues. The NHL now says that figure is too high, and is willing to have another league shutdown to reduce that share to 49 percent to 47 percent.
Its original offer was to cut it to 43 percent, and an updated proposal raised it to 46 before another new offer pushed it a little higher Wednesday, the last time the sides met at the negotiating table.
The most recent proposal from the league — with a six-year term — came in direct response to one put forth by the union earlier Wednesday that was rejected as being similar to the players' two previous offers.
Instead of making a percentage-based offer, the union is seeking a deal that would guarantee players annually at least the $1.8 billion in salaries paid out last season.
Bettman said the league's latest offer would be pulled off the table once the current CBA expired because immediate damage caused by a lockout would force the NHL to reassess what it could then offer.
In the previous lockout, both sides dug in over the salary cap. Owners wouldn't make a deal without it, and players sacrificed a full season before finally agreeing to a cost-certainty system for teams.
Without such a philosophical difference this time, 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 on a request by 16 members of the Montreal Canadiens and the players' association to declare a lockout illegal in the province. No date was set for those hearings.
With the ruling, Canadiens players will be locked out with their colleagues, at least for now.
Daly said in a statement the league was "extremely appreciative" of the decision.
"We are hopeful that this ruling will cause the players' association to cease pursuing these needless distractions and instead focus all of its efforts and energies on making progress at the bargaining table," he said.
Likewise, the union was "pleased" with the ruling because it rejected the NHL's request to dismiss the case.
"The ruling acknowledges that the players have raised issues about the legality of the NHL's planned lockout that require a full hearing on the merits," union general counsel Don Zavelo said in a statement.
"We remain confident that the lockout is prohibited by the Quebec labor code and look forward to presenting our case to the commission in the near future. Should the NHL carry out its threat to lock out the players in Quebec, it will do so at its own risk."
The NHLPA argued that because it isn't certified as a union with the province, its members can't be locked out under Quebec labor law.
A similar request was filed late Thursday with the Alberta labor relations board. NHLPA director of operations Alexandra Dagg said the aim was to prevent players from the Edmonton Oilers and Calgary Flames from being locked out.
In Alberta, the union will argue that proper labor negotiating procedure wasn't followed, including using a mediator.
The current contract was agreed to in 2005, and Bob Goodenow resigned as union head two weeks later. After stints by Ted Saskin and Paul Kelly, the union in 2010 turned to Donald Fehr, who led baseball players through three work stoppages in the 1980s and '90s.
Players struck in April 1992, causing 30 games to be postponed. This would be the third lockout under Bettman. The 1994-95 lockout ended after 103 days and the cancellation of 468 games.
The most recent lockout was finally settled in July 2005 — 301 days into the work stoppage and a month after the league would usually 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 caused no champion to be crowned.