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League moves closer to canceling entire season

National Hockey League (NHL) Commissioner Gary Bettman gestures as he describes negotiations between the NHL and the NHL Players Association
National Hockey League (NHL) Commissioner Gary Bettman gestures as he describes negotiations between the NHL and the NHL Players Association

(Reuters) - The National Hockey League (NHL) moved closer to calling off the entire 2012-13 season after canceling all games through January 14 on Thursday due to a bitter labor dispute with players.

The widely-expected decision brought the total number of lost regular season games to 625, or 50.8 percent of the season, the NHL said in a brief statement.

With no talks scheduled between the two sides, who have not met face-to-face since December 13 when negotiations involving U.S. federal mediators failed to kickstart the process, hopes of salvaging a season were fading quickly.

The NHL, which normally runs an 82-game regular season, has previously said teams would need to play at least 48 games to forge a legitimate season. That meant a new deal must be reached by mid-January to ensure the Stanley Cup playoffs end in June.

Key sticking points in the dispute, which began when the NHL locked out players in September, revolved around the length of a new contract, rules governing term limits on contracts and the transition rules to help teams get under the salary cap.

There were also a handful of smaller issues yet to be agreed upon, most notably the continued participation of NHL players in the Olympics and rules governing drug testing.

The NHL's latest move came as players were casting ballots on whether or not to give their executive board the authority to file a disclaimer of interest, which would essentially dissolve the union and allow individual players to file anti-trust lawsuits against the league.

Confronted with yet another showdown between billionaire owners and millionaire athletes, the NHL and its players are once again testing the loyalty of sponsors, business partners and fans suffering from lockout fatigue.

The labor dispute is the third in a short span to rock a professional North American sports league following lockouts in the National Football League and National Basketball Association last year.

It is also the NHL's fourth work stoppage in 20 years and first since a lockout forced cancelation of the entire 2004-05 season.

When a labor dispute led the NHL to run a 48-game campaign for the 1994-95 season, an agreement with players was reached by January 11 and the season opened on January 20.

(Reporting by Frank Pingue in Toronto; Editing by Larry Fine)

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