By IRA PODELL
AP Sports Writer
---- — NEW YORK — The NHL eliminated 16 more days from the regular-season schedule yesterday, and if a deal with the players’ association isn’t reached soon, the whole season could be lost.
The league wiped out all games through Dec. 30 in its latest round of cancellations.
Already, 422 regular-season games had been called off through Dec. 14 because of the lockout, and the latest cuts on Day 86 of the NHL shutdown claimed 104 more. The New Year’s Day Winter Classic and the All-Star game were canceled earlier.
In all, the 526 lost games account for nearly 43 percent of the regular season that was scheduled to begin Oct. 11.
The cancellation of just two more weeks of the season, however, could perhaps signal hope of a deal to begin play in early January. Negotiations between the league and the players’ association broke off last week, but NHL deputy commissioner Bill Daly said Sunday the sides are trying to restart talks this week.
Daly wrote in an email to The Associated Press yesterday that nothing had been completed regarding a meeting with the union.
Whenever the sides do get back together, they will need to work quickly on a new collective bargaining agreement. Commissioner Gary Bettman said last week, after the most recent round of negotiations, that a season must consist of at least 48 games to protect its integrity. That’s the same number of games played during the lockout-shortened 1994-95 season.
The 1995 lockout ended Jan. 11. The season then began nine days later and lasted until May 3. That marked the only time the NHL season has stretched until May. Each team played 48 games, solely within its own conference, which is likely the model the league would follow this time if a settlement is reached soon.
“When it gets to the point where we can’t play a season with integrity, with a representative schedule, then we’ll be done,” Bettman said on Thursday. “If you go back in history, in ’94-95 I think we played 48 games. I can’t imagine wanting to play fewer than that.”
Depending on who was asked last week, the message was either the sides were close to a deal or nowhere near one.
Players’ association executive director Donald Fehr said Thursday night, after three straight days of negotiations, that he believed an agreement was close, only to change his position moments later when the NHL rejected the union’s most recent offer.
Bettman disagreed that a deal was near and then angrily announced the league was rescinding every offer it had put on the table since the start of negotiations.
The NHL and the players are trying to avoid the loss of a full season for the second time in eight years. The 2004-05 lockout, that eventually produced a salary cap for the first time in league history, was the first labor dispute to force a totally canceled season in North American professional sports.
The season was called off Feb. 16, and an agreement was reached on July 13. The lockout ended nine days later, after the deal was ratified by both sides, allowing for the following season to begin on time. That agreement reached then was in place until this year, and the current lockout began right after its expiration on Sept. 16.