Reiterating that the NHL season won't start until there is a new collective bargaining agreement, Gary Bettman offered a impassioned defence Thursday of the league's stance.

"Listen, nobody wants to make a deal and play hockey more than I do, OK," the NHL commissioner told a news conference when asked what he might say to fans dreading the prospect of a lockout. "This is what I do. This is what my life is about in terms of how I spend most of my waking hours.

"This is really hard. And so you only get involved in this situation when you understand what the issues are and you know you're doing the right thing for the long-term stability of our game and our sport.

"This is very hard and I feel terrible about it."

The current collective bargaining agreement expires Saturday at midnight. The season is slated to start Oct. 11 with training camps due to open Sept. 21.

Earlier, the head of the NHL Players' Association said a lockout could be avoided.

Donald Fehr said the players want to keep negotiating, but the decision to impose a lockout is up to the league.

"The players want to find a way to make an agreement. They want to negotiate until we do," Fehr told a news conference Thursday.

Fehr said the players made large concessions in bargaining last time. Since then, league revenue has risen dramatically.

He asked whether it was fair or equitable that the owners want more concessions.

Fehr says the players have made a responsible proposal, offering what he calls "shared sacrifice."

Under the league offer, the players' share would be reduced "only 17.5 per cent," said Fehr.

That equals $330 US million a year, he added.

"What would your reaction be in similar circumstances?" Fehr said.

The union boss was flanked by a line of players, including Sidney Crosby, Zdeno Chara, Daniel Alfredsson and Henrik Lundqvist.

The NHLPA boss said more than 280 players were in New York to follow the labour situation.

The two sides exchanged new proposals Wednesday and Fehr said there were no developments since then.

The last lockout wiped out the entire 2004-05 season.

Owners asked players to cut their share of hockey-related revenue during a six-year proposal. Current industry revenue is pegged at $3.3 billion annually.

Initially, owners sought to drop the percentage given to players to 43 per cent from the current 57 per cent. They have since amended that to a six-year proposal that starts at 49 per cent and drops to 47 per cent.

NHLPA offers package

The NHLPA is offering a package that starts at 54.3 per cent and ends at 52.7 per cent.

"The perception we have sometimes is that all they're interested in is talking about salary reductions," Fehr said of the league.

The NHL has said it will rescind its offer come Saturday's deadline.

"Everybody's free to reconsider their proposals at any given point in time and if the owners do that, at least obviously that's on the table for the players too," Fehr said.

"One of the questions that needs to be asked is, if indeed they lock out, if indeed they do do that, [whether] that is reasonably calculated to make a deal more likely or less likely?

"I think you can figure out the answer."

Crosby said players just want to play, but not at any cost.

"I know in my case not playing for as long as I did the last year and a half, I obviously want to play," he said. "But I think you also have to realize that there's principles here and you have to understand what's right.

"And I think we believe that what we propose is in that right direction. If you look at both [proposals]

, yeah they're definitely different. But if you have a non-bias opinion, you look at the facts, I think our mindset and the direction we're going is one that seems like it's a little bit more fair for both sides."

Tim Wharnsby, who is covering the labour dispute in New York for CBCSports.ca, said that some players have already made contingency plans should the NHL impose a lockout on Saturday.

"I’ve seen a lot of signs that players are already making plans to maybe get a roster spot in Europe, especially the European-based players," Wharnsby told CBC News. "Some guys could be in lineups on Sunday, the day after the lockout is imposed."

With files from CBCSports.ca