The National Hockey League announced yesterday that it was locking out its players from midnight last night, a move that plunges the weakest of the major US sports into the gravest crisis in its history.
The shutdown, which many fear could wipe out the entire 2004-05 season scheduled to start on 13 October, could mean the demise of several of the existing 30 NHL franchises. It follows the failure of the owners and the players' union to agree a new 10-year labour contract.
The owners are demanding a system of salary caps, in effect reducing the current average salary of $1.8m [£1.05m] to about $1.3m [£740,000]. The union is offering only a one-off pay cut in salaries, plus a luxury tax to encourage revenue sharing and curbs on entry-level salaries.
"We're not talking the same language," Garry Bettman, the NHL commissioner, said before last night's announcement.
No talks had been held between the sides since last week and many of the league's European players have arranged to play on the other side of the Atlantic. Some of their US counterparts have taken up coaching jobs or plan to play in the lower-ranking AHL league.
Canada's 3-2 victory over Finland in the final of the World Cup of Hockey on Tuesday could be the last top-flight hockey game in North America for a year.
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