Ice Hockey: Wage-cap dispute spells end for NHL season

Gary Bettman, the commissioner of the National Hockey League, yesterday cancelled what remained of the 2004/2005 season, making the NHL the first league in US professional sports history to lose an entire season because of a labour dispute.

Gary Bettman, the commissioner of the National Hockey League, yesterday cancelled what remained of the 2004/2005 season, making the NHL the first league in US professional sports history to lose an entire season because of a labour dispute.

Bettman made the long expected announcement in New York yesterday afternoon, two hours after a league imposed deadline for a deal with the players' union on a firm salary cap for the 30 NHL teams. "This is a sad, regrettable day, that all of us wish could have been avoided," he said.

After months of total deadlock since the owners locked out the players last September 16, the two sides had came tantalisingly close to a deal in 48 hours of frenetic negotiations.

At the last minute the union dropped its previous objections in principle to a cap, saying it would agree to a $50m (£27m) wage ceiling per team. The NHL countered by dropping its original insistence on a $32.5m cap, raising the figure to first $40m and then a "final offer" of $42.5m.

At that point, Bettman gave the NHLPA union until 11am yesterday to accept. But the union went no lower than $49m, leaving the two sides just $6.5m apart. At that point hopes of salvaging a truncated 28 game regular season, followed by four rounds of play-offs, finally died.

The loss of the season means that the Stanley Cup, the oldest prize in US professional sport, will not be awarded for the first time since 1919, when a flu epidemic forced its cancellation. But the longer term implications are even more grave.

After collective losses of some $500m in 2003 and 2004 alone, the owners imposed a shut down, saying that only a salary cap - similar to those operating in American football and basketball - could save many teams from going under.

But the players, who have seen their average salary soar from $574,000 in 1995 to $1.8m last year, long refused - even though the sport was losing fans and TV revenues, and had fallen behind NASCAR racing, wrestling and even poker among the most popular US sports.

What happens next is unclear. "We're planning to have hockey next season," Bettman declared, promising that negotiations would continue. But he added that the two sides were "not as close as it seemed" to a deal. There are fears that part or all of next season could be lost, and that several NHL franchises may be forced to close.

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