The National Hockey League became the first major professional league to lose its entire season to a labor dispute yesterday when commissioner Gary Bettman announced the cancellation of the remainder of its 1,230-game schedule.
"As I stand before you today, it is my sad duty to announce that it no longer is practical to conduct even an abbreviated season," Bettman said at a New York news conference that was televised live across the United States and Canada. "Accordingly, I have no choice but to announce the formal cancellation of play for 2004-2005.
"The shame of this is our fans deserved better. The people who earned their livelihoods from this game deserved better. ... We have -- collectively, the league, the players association -- squandered a great opportunity to move forward."
Bettman's announcement came on the 154th day of a lockout imposed by the league, which said it could not function under its current business model. The NHL's 30 team owners said they needed a salary cap that was linked to revenues, similar to the one in the National Football League, to give them cost certainty.
The executive director of the National Hockey League Players Association, speaking at a news conference in Toronto, said that his group made at least two major concessions over the course of the negotiations but that it never had a "real negotiating partner."
"The players sincerely wanted a fair deal and pushed hard to get one," said Bob Goodenow, pointing to an offer players made to cut their salaries 24 percent and another that would have given new arbitration rights to the teams.
"Keep one thing perfectly clear: The players never asked for more money. They just asked for a marketplace to exist where they could negotiate with their club's owners for what their value was to their team."
Marc Ganis, president of the Chicago-based consulting firm SportsCorp, said the owners had no choice but to lock the players out.
"They could not let the league continue the way it was going," he said. "You had 10 percent of your franchises filing for bankruptcy in the last few years. Imagine if you had 10 percent of baseball clubs or 10 percent of NFL clubs or 10 percent of NBA clubs filing for bankruptcy. That's cataclysmic."
Bettman said the NHL would attempt to continue negotiations with the players association, and that the league was planning to play the 2005-2006 season. But he deflected questions about whether the owners would attempt to use replacement players if they could not reach a deal.
"We are going to start planning for the '05-'06 season," he said. "The manner in which it is conducted, when it is conducted, are all things that we have to work on.
"We will examine all of our options and we will decide as we get closer how we want to proceed."
However the NHL does proceed, the one thing everyone agrees on is that there will be much work to do to win back the fans.
"We are going to have to re-earn our place in our fans' world," Bettman said. "What we're going to have to do is come back better than ever. We're going to have to come back with the right economics, we're going to have to come back with the right product on the ice, and that's what we're committed to."
Said Ganis: "When they come out with it, they need to re-brand the NHL and create a new relationship with their fans and sponsors."
Washington Capitals owner Ted Leonsis said yesterday that he will be reaching out to his team's fan base.
"What will I tell them? That it's in all of our best interest to get a system that makes the league competitive, is fair to the players, but gets the players vested in the success of the league," he said. "And one that makes it so that we can have ticket pricing be competitive and not be as inflationary as it has been in the past."
Bettman opened his news conference with an apology to the fans; Goodenow did not offer one until he was asked.
"Absolutely, an apology to all the fans," Goodenow said. The players "didn't want to be locked out, they didn't want to be not allowed to entertain the fans. Gary owes an apology because he started the lockout, he put all of this in motion.
"We've done an awful lot to try to get to a fair resolution. Unfortunately, it's the other side that we haven't been able to make a contact with. It's unfortunate that this situation will continue."
Even before the lockout started Sept. 16, the players association said a salary cap was a deal-breaker. But late Monday night, the union made a major concession, saying it would accept a $52 million cap per team if the league did not link player salaries to league revenues.
In response, the NHL made a major concession of its own and agreed to "non-linkage." It offered a $40 million salary cap.
Those two moves sparked optimism that a last-minute deal could be made that would allow NHL teams to play an abbreviated 28-game regular season, followed by a 16-team playoff tournament to award the Stanley Cup.