Despite both sides in the National Hockey League war finally leaving their bunkers in search of a deal on Tuesday night, commissioner Gary Bettman put a bullet through the season at 1:03 p.m. EST yesterday, the first North American pro sports league to call off a whole year of play.
"We profoundly regret the suffering this (lockout) has caused our fans, business partners and the thousands whose livelihoods depend on our industry," Bettman said in New York. "This is a sad, regrettable day. We are going to have to re-earn our place in our fans' world."
Bettman and Players Association executive director Bob Goodenow got as close as $6.5 million US difference in salary cap, per team, early Tuesday night and prospects brightened. But then both stuck to their final offers -- the league at $42.5 million --the union at $49 million, each claiming they were at the limit.
"We would have lost money in the first two seasons," Bettman said of his own six-year deal. "We went as far as we believed we could afford to go. We took into account the interests of all our (small market) clubs."
Goodenow called Bettman's decision to pull the plug "the unthinkable" and reiterated the players were only out to preserve a free market and had made two giant concessions, a 24% salary rollback and Tuesday's acceptance of a cap.
"That they still wouldn't deal after that ... it just blows my mind," said NHLPA vice-president Vince Damphousse.
Members of the NHL board of governors lined up in support of Bettman, while the union, despite some players and agents trying to break the deadlock on their own, endorsed Goodenow's handling of the crisis 10 years after he scored a victory in the last lockout.
Bettman was quick to vow that a full 2005-06 season is in the works, with all the league's previously planned on-ice changes to open up play. He hinted at declaring a bargaining impasse as a step to using replacement players in the autumn.
He also took his last offer off the table, meaning the league will resume seeking linkage between salaries and league revenues. The players also pulled their rollback.
Each leader blamed the other for not moving on key issues until it was too late and both ruled out a return to the table for at least a few weeks.
The Stanley Cup will be uncontested for the first time since a flu epidemic in 1919 and will be out of the clutches of the Maple Leafs for a 38th straight year -- possibly longer if the union is true to its resolve and another year is lost through stalemate.
"This is a dark day for hockey," Leafs defenceman Ken Klee said.