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NHL cancels entire season in a first for sports

NEW YORK -- Paralyzed by a labor dispute, the National Hockey League yesterday officially canceled its 2004-05 season, further alienating the sport from its once-loyal fan base and raising serious questions about the league's economic future.

The shutdown marked the first time a major professional sport in North America has killed an entire season over a labor conflict. The move aggravated the financial pain a 154-day lockout already had inflicted on thousands of workers whose livelihoods depend on the NHL and guaranteed the Bruins will not play in Boston for the first time in 80 winters.

"We profoundly regret the suffering this has caused our fans, our business partners, and the thousands of people whose livelihoods depend on our industry," NHL commissioner Gary Bettman said in a news conference at a hotel in Times Square. "This is a sad, regrettable day that all of us wish could have been avoided."

By canceling a season for the first time in its 87-year history, the NHL unleashed a major economic blow to 30 host cities throughout the United States and Canada. In Boston alone, the sport's absence will drain an estimated $30 million out of the local economy, not including tax revenues and income generated within the FleetCenter, according to the Greater Boston Convention and Visitors Bureau. "I had hoped we would never see the NHL and their owners do the unthinkable and cancel an entire season," said Bob Goodenow, executive director of the NHL Players Association. "Unfortunately, the owners did exactly that today."

The owners authorized Bettman to scuttle the season after last-minute talks with the players' union failed to resolve their differences. The NHL lost an estimated $225 million last season while grossing more than $2 billion and has lost $1.8 billion over the last decade.

"Everyone associated with the National Hockey League owes our fans an apology for the situation in which we find ourselves," Bettman said. "We are truly sorry."

The commissioner vowed the NHL will play next season, though he predicted the league would continue to lose money for at least two more years, even if the players were to agree to terms favorable to the owners. Both sides acknowledged that fans are unlikely to rush back to NHL arenas, which means the league's revenues could drop sharply and television networks, which have shown little interest in the sport, would grow even more reluctant to invest in the league.

"We're going to have to earn back the trust and love and affection of everyone associated with the game," Bettman said.

First, they will need to play the game, which seemed a remote possibility as the sides continued to blame each other for the historic impasse. The NHL locked out its 700 players in September, more than a year after the owners first proposed a new labor agreement that would have established a salary cap for teams and would have linked the cap to a percentage of the league's annual revenues.

A study commissioned by the NHL determined that player salaries last season equaled 75 percent of the league's revenues, too great a burden for the owners to bear. Bettman indicated the owners sought a deal that would cap salaries at no more than 55 percent of the league's revenues. The average NHL salary last season was $1.8 million.

"We're done losing money as a league," Bettman said, asserting the NHL will lose less money this winter by canceling the season than by playing its regular 82-game schedule.

The union, which initially proposed rolling back salaries by 24 percent, steadfastly opposed a salary cap until the owners agreed in recent days to drop their request to link the cap to league revenues. But the sides were unable to bridge their differences over the amount of the cap, with the union willing to go no lower than $49 million per team and the owners no higher than $42.5 million.

Goodenow said enough was enough, contending the union had compromised from the start.

"Keep one thing perfectly clear: The players never asked for more money," he said. "At some point, concessions end, and they ended here today."

With both sides under fire from fans and some players over their inability to close the $6.5 million gap, Bettman characterized the difference as much larger than it may appear. If each of the 30 teams absorbed the additional $6.5 million, he noted, the extra cost would have been $195 million.

"We were not talking about some small difference at all," Bettman said. "We were still very far apart."

Bettman blamed the union for refusing to review the league's financial documents and better understand the need to overhaul the system. Though the league may have put itself in peril by expanding too aggressively while allowing owners to quadruple the average salary of players over the last decade, Bettman contended the union bore significant responsibility.

"My biggest regret in this whole process is that we could never get the union to look at the books to understand exactly what our economics were," Bettman said. "In retrospect, trying to forge an economic system when one side doesn't have a handle on the economics might have been an impossible task."

Goodenow bristled at Bettman's criticism and accused the owners of unfairly portraying the players as the problem.

"It's indeed unfortunate that during the negotiations the league has tried to paint the players as very greedy," Goodenow said. "This is not about greed. It's about a fair deal."

The chances of reaching a deal seemed no better after Bettman's announcement as both sides rescinded all the concessions they made over the previous five months. Bettman insisted the owners will not approve a deal unless salaries are linked to revenues, and Goodenow said, "Everything is off the table," including the initial proposal for a 24 percent reduction in salaries.

The sides agreed on little else but this: For the players, owners, fans, and workers who rely on the NHL, the impasse was a "tragedy."

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