NHL commissioner Gary Bettman cancelled the hockey season Wednesday after a series of 11th-hour offers by the league and the Players' Association failed to produce a new collective bargaining agreement.

"When I stood before you in September, I said NHL teams would not play again until our economic problems had been solved," Bettman said from New York.

"As I stand before you today, it is my sad duty to announce that because that solution has not yet been attained, it no longer is practical to conduct even an abbreviated season. Accordingly, I have no choice but to announce the formal cancellation of play for 2004-05."

Neither the Great Depression nor World War II could prevent the NHL from awarding the Stanley Cup. But with the league and the NHLPA still divided over the issue of a salary cap, Lord Stanley's trophy will not be contested for the first time since 1919 when a Spanish flu epidemic wiped out the finals.

Not only that, but Bettman's announcement means the NHL must suffer the indignity of becoming the first of North America's four major professional sports leagues to lose an entire regular season because of a labour dispute.

The 1995 NHL lockout ended after 103 days when the players accepted a last-ditch offer following 48 hours of intense negotiations, and a 48-game season was salvaged.

Bettman refused to budge this time after giving the union until 11 a.m. ET Wednesday to accept a so-called final offer, which featured a $42.5 million US per team salary cap without linking player costs and salaries. The league had already moved from Monday's position of a firm $40 million cap.

The NHL is planning for the 2005-06 season, but Bettman warned the league is going to have to look at a "completely different economic model."

"The best deal that was on the table is now gone," said Bettman, adding the NHL will revert to its demand for linkage in future negotiations.

The last offer by the NHLPA was $49 million per team with a luxury tax component that the NHL swiftly turned down in less than an hour Tuesday evening.

"We weren't as close as people were speculating ... We were still very far apart," Bettman said, noting the gap of $6.5 million multiplied by 30 teams is close to $200 million.

Neither side contacted the other following the exchange of letters around 12:30 a.m. ET on Wednesday.

Along with the $49 million cap, the NHLPA restructured the exception provision, so that teams can spend over the cap twice during the six-year term and "for up to only 10 per cent over the limit of $49 million (to $53.9 million), at the tax rate of 150 per cent."

The union also proposed that the rest of the luxury tax would increase like this: 25 per cent on $40 million-$43 million, 50 per cent on $43 million-$46 million and 75 per cent from $46 million-$49 million. The deal also included a minimum payroll of $25 million.

Union boss Bob Goodenow, speaking in Toronto, said the players made all the moves and concessions.

"Unfortunately we never had a real negotiating partner," he said. "The players never asked for more money, they just asked for a marketplace to exist where they could negotiate with their clubs' owners for what their value was to their teams."

During the 2003-04 season, 13 teams had payrolls in excess of $42 million.

"Five months ago, I stated that the National Hockey League could not function without an economic system that will bring our League into the 21st Century," Bettman said. "I said that our 30 clubs were united in their dedication to an economic system under which the teams and players, sharing common objectives and a commitment to our fans' satisfaction, would work together as partners.

"The time since then has been devoted to the pursuit of that goal. Today, I can tell you that our determination remains every bit as strong as it was in September to secure the partnership required to protect and ensure the future of the league ... for the benefit of the clubs, the players, and our devoted fans.

The first legitimate signs of a possible deal came late Monday night when both sides made offers and huge concessions.

After five months of butting heads with the union, the NHL came off its stance of linkage, proposing a $40 million salary cap.

The NHLPA, steadfastly opposed to any form of a cap, countered with a $52 million salary cap offer that was rejected. Also included was a 24-per-cent rollback on player salaries that was part of the union's Dec. 9 proposal.

A Sunday meeting between the NHL's owners, players and mediators with the U.S. Federal Mediation and Conciliation Service (FMCS) in Washington, D.C. yielded little progress in the effort to save the hockey season.

As well, several players reportedly made a push, expressing their concerns to Goodenow and NHL executive vice-president Bill Daly.

Last Wednesday, Goodenow said it "would be very daunting" to expect a season.

The next day, Daly said the league would have to begin exploring alternatives in the event of a cancelled season, including the use of replacement players to start the 2005-06 season.

"The National Hockey League board of governors fully supports and endorses the action taken on its behalf by commissioner Gary Bettman. This action was not taken lightly, but the union left us no choice," said Calgary Flames co-owner Harley Hotchkiss, who doubles as chairman of the NHL board of governors.

Without a CBA, the NHL entry draft will not take place this summer.

Had an agreement been reached, there were plans for a 28-game schedule with each team playing a home-and-home series against its conference rivals. The regular 16-game playoff format wouldn't have been affected.

Close to 400 NHLers continue to ply their trade in European leagues. Some of them are expected to suit up for the world hockey championships, scheduled for April 30-May 10 in Austria.

with files from Canadian Press