The NHL has moved one step closer to calling off another season because of a labour dispute.
Regular-season games through Jan. 14 were wiped off the schedule on Thursday afternoon, setting up a potential timeline for the league's collective bargaining negotiations with the NHL Players' Association.
It was likely the final batch of games that will be cancelled during the lockout. If commissioner Gary Bettman holds true to his word that the league must play at least a 48-game schedule with playoffs ending in June, the next announcement from the league will either be a new CBA or a second cancelled season in eight years.
"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 earlier this month. "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."
A total of 625 games have been cancelled because of the current lockout, which represents 50.8 per cent of the season. The all-star game in Columbus has also been axed.
When the NHL staged a 48-game season following the 1994-95 lockout, the CBA was agreed to on Jan. 11 and the puck was dropped on Jan. 20. The regular season ran through May 3 and saw the Stanley Cup awarded on June 24 — thanks to sweeps in four of the last seven playoff series.
The league contemplated the possibility of a 28-game season in 2004-05 before finally cancelling play on Feb. 16.
There was no statement included with Thursday's announcement of the additional game cancellations. In an email, deputy commissioner Bill Daly declined to characterize whether Jan. 15 could be viewed as the lastest date to salvage a shortened schedule.
Talks have been at a standstill since the NHLPA last presented a proposal on Dec. 6 in New York. The sides also spent two days with a U.S. federal mediator last week and reported no progress.
Meanwhile, the league and union continue to deal with the legal ramifications of the lockout. On Thursday, a court summons was filed in New York that stated the NHLPA has until Jan. 7 to respond to a class-action complaint filed by the NHL last week.
The league has asked a federal court to rule on the legality of the lockout and argued in its complaint that the NHLPA was only threatening to disband as a bargaining tactic designed to "extract more favourable terms and conditions of employment."
A vote of the union's membership on the possibility of filing a "disclaimer of interest" is scheduled to wrap up Friday. Two-thirds of players must support the motion for the NHLPA's executive board to be granted the authority to disclaim by Jan. 2, which would allow them to file anti-trust lawsuits against the league.
"We feel like we have no other choice right now," Tampa Bay Lightning forward Steven Stamkos said this week. "We feel like we've done our part and we'll see what transpires over the next couple of weeks. We're in this process and we all wish we could have something much earlier, but we have to deal with what's in front of us."
There are currently no further bargaining sessions planned. On Wednesday night, NHLPA executive director Donald Fehr said the union was ready to get back to the bargaining table but it hadn't happened yet "because the owners have not indicated a desire to resume."