(Reuters) - Hopes for a quick end to the National Hockey League's labor dispute were dashed on Thursday when the latest round of talks broke down.
No further negotiations were scheduled as the two feuding sides pointed the finger of blame at each other after three days of negotiations that began positively ended on a sour note.
"I am disappointed beyond belief that we are where we are tonight," said NHL Commissioner Gary Bettman. "We're going to have to take a deep breath and regroup."
With the sides no closer to finding an agreement, time is running out to salvage something from a season that was due to start in early October but is now in danger of being canceled altogether because of the labor dispute.
"It looks like this is not going to be resolved in the immediate future," said Donald Fehr, the Executive Director of the National Hockey League Players' Association (NHLPA).
Fehr's bleak forecast came just moments after he had triumphantly announced that a resolution was imminent, telling reporters at a midtown Manhattan hotel that the sides were close to agreement on most of the major issues.
He said both sides had resolved their differences over player pensions and money, one of the key sticking points, and players had presented a revised eight-year deal collective bargaining agreement which they expected the league to accept.
"(We are) clearly very close if not on top of one another in connection with most of the major issues," Fehr said.
But within minutes of finishing the conference, the union boss returned to the podium and announced the NHL had rejected the proposal and pulled some of their previous offers from the table.
"We were advised in a voicemail message that the moves the players made were not acceptable, there was no reason to stay around for meetings tonight or tomorrow, that they would be in touch," said Fehr.
Bettman later held his own conference, explaining the NHL's position, and saying he did not know why Fehr suggested the sides were close when they never were.
"I don't know why he did that," Bettman said. "I found it almost incomprehensible that he did it."
REFUSAL TO BUDGE
Bettman said owners went out of their way to improve their offer but the union refused to budge on key issues, including demands for a 10-year agreement.
Bettman and Fehr had agreed to stay away from the talks in the hope their absence might lead to a speedy resolution after the previous talks last week, involving federal mediators, also collapsed.
Instead, a select group of players sat down face-to-face with a handful of team owners to try and thrash out an agreement.
Both sides appeared optimistic after marathon talks over the first two days but the mood changed when Fehr and the NHL's counsel joined the negotiations on Wednesday.
"I was optimistic and conveyed my optimism to the board of governors at our Wednesday meeting. However, when we reconvened with the players on Wednesday afternoon, it was like someone had thrown a switch," said Toronto Maple Leafs minority owner Larry Tanenbaum, who was at the meetings.
"The atmosphere had completely changed. Nevertheless, the owners tried to push forward and made a number of concessions and proposals, which were not well-received. I question whether the union is interested in making an agreement."
The lockout, which the NHL has said is costing it about $18-$20 million per day, is centered around a dispute over how to split the league's $3.3 billion revenue.
It is the fourth work stoppage in 20 years for the NHL and the first since a lockout wiped out the entire 2004-05 season.
"I came here optimistic that we could find a solution. That sense of optimism grew after our first few sessions, including the small group discussions late last night," Mark Chipman, an owner of the Winnipeg Jets who was involved in this week's meetings, said in a statement.
"Regrettably, we have been unable to close the divide on some critical issues that we feel are essential to the immediate and long-term health of our game."