(Reuters) - National Hockey League (NHL) fans were bracing for another winter without hockey while players were looking for places to ride out the impending labor dispute as the clock ticked towards another lockout on Friday.
An ominous silence hung over the sport as negotiations on a new collective bargaining agreement were at a standstill with the NHL ready to lock out players if a new deal is not reached before the current pact expires at 12:01 a.m. EDT (0401 GMT) Sunday.
Memories of the bitter labor dispute that wiped out the entire 2004-05 season remain fresh in the minds of frustrated NHL fans as players and owners exchanged proposals in Manhattan this week without making any progress.
“We are not prepared to open another season until we have a new collective bargaining agreement,” NHL Commissioner Gary Bettman told reporters following a board of governors meeting.
“The league is not in a position, not willing to move forward with another season under the status quo.”
Both the players and owners have wasted no time rolling out the rhetoric, placing the blame for a potential lockout and any damage it would cause to the game at each other’s feet.
The main sticking point in the dispute, which threatens a fourth work stoppage in 20 years, lies with the two sides at odds over how to divide $3.3 billion in revenue.
The NHL, which enjoyed record-breaking revenues last season, initially wanted players to cut their share of hockey-related revenue to 43 percent from 57 percent but have amended that to a six-year deal that starts at 49 percent and drops to 47 percent.
The offer from the NHL Players’ Association (NHLPA) is tied to projected future revenues with players willing to take a smaller slice of the pie as the league grows. The union’s offer opens with players getting 54.3 percent of revenues and dipping to 52.7 percent.
The numbers, however, add up to only one thing for fans -- another lockout and no hockey.
If the owners impose the lockout then it is unlikely the NHL regular season will open as scheduled on October 11.
Players are to report to training camps on September 21 but if there is no deal, Bettman is expected to quickly announce the cancellation of pre-season games followed by the first regular season casualties.
The exodus has already begun with NHL Most Valauble Player Evgeni Malkin of the Pittsburgh Penguins and Ottawa Senators defenceman Sergei Gonchar reportedly in Russia practicing with Magnitogorsk of the Kontinental Hockey League.
The Russian league, which can offer attractive salaries, will be the destination of choice for many players looking for work but it has put guidelines in place to ensure teams only open their doors to the NHL’s best.
To be eligible, a player must have either previous KHL experience, played no fewer than 150 NHL games over the last three seasons, represented his country at one of the last two IIHF world championships, world junior championships, Olympics or is a Stanley Cup finalist or winner.
Sidney Crosby, one of nearly 300 players at this week’s meetings, stood alongside NHLPA head Donald Fehr and other players in a show of solidarity but the Penguins captain has said he will consider playing in Europe.
”This is not what you want to be doing this time of year,“ said Crosby, fit again after missing large parts of the last two seasons with concussion-related symptoms. ”It’s not something where tomorrow I‘m just going to decide to go (to Europe).
“But depending on how long this goes, I’ve missed a pretty extended period of time the last year and a half. I‘m a hockey player. I want to keep going. So yes, it’s definitely something I’ll think about.”
Both Bettman and Fehr have said they will not be paid their multi-million dollar salaries during a lockout and Crosby, one of the NHL’s highest paid players, could also lose a fortune.
But in these tough economic times, the impact of a prolonged work stoppage will be felt most by those who earn their living working at NHL arenas, nearby parking lots, bars and restaurants that rely on games for a large part of their income.
”I‘m absolutely shocked, you have the owners who are doing incredibly well, and they’re making about $1.2 billion more now than they did at the time of the last lockout,“ Buzz Hargrove, the former head of the Canadian Auto Workers union, told Reuters. ”They’re taking in that kind of money, and they can’t find a solution?
“Bettman’s just throwing the gauntlet down and saying it’s going to be our way of the highway.”
Reporting by Steve Keating in Toronto; Additional reporting by Allison Martell in Toronto; Editing by Frank Pingue