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Looming lockout close to becoming a reality for National Hockey League

NHL Players Association executive director Donald Fehr, left, is joined by Boston Bruins' Zdeno Chara, center, and Pittsburgh Penguins' Sidney Crosby as he speaks to reporters during a news conference in New York, Thursday, Sept. 13, 2012. Fehr says a lockout can be avoided and that's up to the league. (AP Photo/Mary Altaffer)

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NHL Players Association executive director Donald Fehr, left, is joined by Boston Bruins' Zdeno Chara, center, and Pittsburgh Penguins' Sidney Crosby as he speaks to reporters during a news conference in New York, Thursday, Sept. 13, 2012. Fehr says a lockout can be avoided and that's up to the league. (AP Photo/Mary Altaffer)

Another NHL lockout is just hours away.

The players and owners entered their final day under an expiring collective bargaining agreement with a massive gap between proposals and no plans to return to the bargaining table.

As a result, all signs were pointing to the NHL closing its doors at midnight. That's when time will expire on the CBA which was signed following the cancellation of the entire 2004-05 season.

The deadline is expected to pass quietly without any formal announcement from the league. The sides last sat down together on Wednesday, with each tabling a proposal, and commissioner Gary Bettman indicated he expects the next move to come from the NHL Players' Association.

"We made the last offer and we haven't gotten a formal response to our proposal," Bettman said Thursday. "I hope we get one and one that recognizes that we made yet another meaningful move and we're trying to engage in a negotiation."

For the last several weeks, talks have only centred on the league's core economic system. All of the secondary issues are expected to be taken care of once agreement can be found on the main one.

The NHL believes too much money is being paid out in salaries and has proposed a system to address it. They're calling for the players' share in revenue to be set at 49 per cent next season—down from 57 per cent in the expiring deal—and proposed that it drops to 47 per cent by the end of the six-year deal.

The union tabled an offer where the salary cap would be set to fixed increases of two per cent, four per cent and six per cent over the next three years. The system would then revert to a percentage-based system for the final two years.

With the sides trying to figure out how to divide up $3.28 billion in annual revenues, both lamented the damage that is bound to be inflicted by engaging in another work stoppage.

"Hockey is poised, I think, to really move over the next three or four years to a fundamentally different place than it's been before," said Donald Fehr, the NHLPA's executive director. "The question is whether the dispute we're currently having is going to screw that up. If so, that's bad and that's unfortunate—we ought to be doing what we can to avoid it."

Added Bettman: "Even a brief lockout will cost more in lost revenue and wages than making a deal we think we need to make."

Virtually no one will be making money now. Bettman and deputy commissioner Bill Daly will both give up their salary during the lockout while Fehr stopped being paid by the union at the beginning of July.

The first pre-season games are expected to be cancelled next week and the possibility of having the regular season start as scheduled on Oct. 11 will become less and less likely with each passing day.

Both sides in the dispute have questioned whether the other actually wanted to make a deal and avoid a lockout.

"We all kind of feel that's what they are looking for," Pittsburgh Penguins captain Sidney Crosby said after a meeting of more than 250 players in New York this week. "If you look at the key principles of everything, we're showing we're willing to move, to sacrifice things.

"If you look at (the NHL) proposal, it's not really the same type of feeling."

The last round of negotiations saw the sides cancel an entire season before the NHLPA eventually relented and accepted a salary cap. However, it didn't end up working out so badly for players as the average salary rose to $2.45 million over the course of the deal.

"It actually turned out to be more fair than perhaps it should have been," said Bettman.

And so the NHL is on the verge of its fourth work stoppage in two decades.

An 11-day strike in April 1992 caused 30 games to be postponed, while a 103-day lockout in 1994-95 caused the cancellation of 468 games and delayed the season's start until Jan. 20. The 2004 lockout began Sept. 16 and wasn't settled until July 13—making the NHL the first North American sports league to ever cancel an entire season over a labour dispute.

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