By Frank Pingue
(Reuters) - The National Hockey League (NHL) canceled the first two weeks of the 2012-13 regular season on Thursday with no end in sight to the labor dispute with locked-out players.
The decision impacts 82 games that were scheduled from October 11-24 and marked the first time regular season action has been canceled since a lockout wiped out the entire 2004-05 season.
"We were extremely disappointed to have to make today's announcement. The game deserves better, the fans deserve better and the people who derive income from their connection to the NHL deserve better," NHL Deputy Commissioner Bill Daly said in a statement.
"We remain committed to doing everything in our power to forge an agreement that is fair to the players, fair to the teams and good for our fans."
Among the early games canceled were the Stanley Cup champion Los Angeles Kings' home opener versus the New York Rangers on October 12 and a matchup of Original Six NHL teams on October 13 between the Toronto Maple Leafs and Montreal Canadiens.
The block of games could still be rescheduled if the feuding sides reach a timely agreement to end the work stoppage, something that many experts say is unlikely given the wide gulf between the two sides.
The NHL imposed a lockout, which essentially halted all league operations, when the previous collective bargaining agreement expired 18 days ago with the owners and players at odds over how to divide a $3.3 billion revenue pie.
The league had already said it would lose about $100 million in revenue from its earlier decision to scrap the entire two-week preseason schedule.
POINTED THE FINGER
The union representing NHL players pointed the finger at the owners, saying the decision to cancel games was made by them.
"If the owners truly cared about the game and the fans, they would lift the lockout and allow the season to begin on time while negotiations continue," NHL Players' Association Executive Director Don Fehr said in a statement.
"A lockout should be the last resort in bargaining, not the strategy of first resort."
Over 100 players, including Washington Capitals captain Alex Ovechkin and the league's most valuable player Evgeni Malkin of the Pittsburgh Penguins, have since signed deals to play in Europe while the NHL sorts out its fourth work stoppage in 20 years.
Confronted with yet another showdown between billionaire owners and millionaire athletes, the NHL and its players are once again rolling the dice and testing the loyalty of sponsors, business partners and fans suffering from lockout fatigue.
The labor dispute is the third in an 18-month span to hit a professional North American sports league following lockouts in the National Football League and National Basketball Association last year.
The NHL, which enjoyed record-breaking revenues last season, had most recently offered its players a six-year deal, with an initial 49 percent share of revenues dipping to 47 percent over the term of the agreement.
Players received 57 percent of revenue under the old deal.
The latest proposal from the players' union was tied to projected future revenues with players willing to take a smaller slice of the pie as the league grows. The union's offer opened with players earning 54.3 percent of revenues, dipping to 52.7 percent.
"This is not about 'winning' or 'losing' a negotiation. This is about finding a solution that preserves the long-term health and stability of the League and the game," said Daly.
"We are committed to getting this done."
(Reporting by Frank Pingue in Toronto; Editing by Julian Linden and Mark Lamport-Stokes)