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Time is fast running out on NHL lockout

Commissioner says at least 48 games need to be played for 'a season with integrity'

Officials and players are trying to avoid a repeat of a complete season from being shot out since 2004/05.
Officials and players are trying to avoid a repeat of a complete season from being shot out since 2004/05.

The NHL has eliminated 16 more days from the regular-season schedule and if a deal with the players' association is not reached soon the whole season could be lost. The league wiped out all games through December 30 in its latest round of cancellations.

Already, 422 regular-season games had been called off through December 14 because of the lockout, and the cuts on Day 86 of the NHL shutdown claimed 104 more. The New Year's Day Winter Classic and the All-Star game were cancelled earlier.

In all, the 526 lost games account for nearly 43 per cent of the regular season that was scheduled to begin October 11.

Perversely, the cancellation of "only" two more weeks of the season could signal hope of a deal to begin play early next month.

Negotiations between the league and the players' association broke off last week, but Bill Daly, the NHL deputy commissioner, said the sides are trying to restart talks this week.

Whenever players and the league get back together, they will need to work quickly on a new collective bargaining agreement. Gary Bettman, the commissioner, last week said that a season must consist of at least 48 games to protect its integrity. That is the number of games played during the lockout-shortened 1994/95 season.

The 1995 lockout ended January 11 that year. The season began nine days later and lasted until May 3. That marked the only time the NHL season has stretched until May.

Each team played 48 games, solely within its own conference, which is likely the model the league would follow this time if a settlement is reached soon.

"When it gets to the point where we can't play a season with integrity, with a representative schedule, then we'll be done," Bettman said last week. "If you go back in history, in 1994/95 I think we played 48 games. I can't imagine wanting to play fewer than that."

Depending on who was asked last week, the message was either the sides were close to a deal or nowhere near one. Donald Fehr, the players' association executive director, had said after three days of negotiations, that he believed an agreement was close, only to change his position moments later when the NHL rejected the union's most recent offer.

Bettman disagreed that a deal was near and announced the league was rescinding every offer it had put on the table since the start of negotiations.

"I would say it was expected," the New York Rangers goalie Martin Biron, the team's union representative, said. "We continue to stand behind Don 100 per cent and the work our negotiating committee is doing and working hard to get a deal done."

Neither Fehr nor his brother Steve, the union's special counsel, had a comment following the NHL's declaration, on Monday, of more lost games.

The NHL and the players are trying to avoid the loss of a full season for the second time in eight years. The 2004/05 lockout, that eventually produced a salary cap for the first time in league history, was the first labour dispute to force a cancelled season in North American professional sports.

The season was called off February 16, and an agreement was reached on July 13. The lockout ended nine days later, after the deal was ratified by both sides, allowing for the following season to begin on time.

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