The head of the NHL Players’ Association has not lost hope that a lockout can be avoided, calling on team owners to negotiate until a deal is reached.

“The players want to find a way to make an agreement. They want to negotiate until we do,” Donald Fehr told a press conference in New York on Thursday.

But NHL Commissioner Gary Bettman did not sound optimistic, saying the season won’t start until there is a new collective bargaining agreement in place.

The current agreement expires at midnight on Saturday.

Although Fehr said a lockout can still be avoided, Bettman said the league is not willing to kick off a new season “under the status quo.”

“We’ve had seven years of incredible competitive balance…the game on the ice has never been better,” Bettman told reporters after a two-hour meeting of NHL’s board of governors.

“But I’m not going to apologize for saying we need to adjust (the current system).”

The comments from both sides come one day after the players’ union and owners exchanged contract proposals to tepid enthusiasm following days of silence.

Fehr said the players had presented a responsible proposal and were willing to share in the sacrifice needed to make the league economically sound in the long term, and avoid a work stoppage in the short term.

Fehr said he believes hockey is poised to grow over the next couple years unless a lockout gets in the way. He added that the league was asking players to reduce salaries by about 17 per cent – a shift in profit sharing that would result in an extra $2 billion for owners.

“What would your reaction be in similar circumstances?” Fehr asked reporters as he was flanked by NHL superstars including Sidney Crosby, Zdeno Chara and Henrik Lundqvist.

But Bettman said players are still asking for “too much” of hockey-related revenues.

Nearly 300 players joined union leaders in New York on Wednesday to consider a counter proposal issued Bettman on Wednesday.

Bettman says the offer was valid until the current collective bargaining agreement expired Saturday night, at which time he is prepared to lock players out.

It would be the second lockout in eight years, after the entire 2004-05 season was lost to a lockout.

The owners are seeking a six-year deal that would see players cut their share of hockey-related revenues from the current 57 per cent to between 47 and 49 per cent. They had originally looked to cut the players’ share to 43 per cent.

The players maintain that the league must re-examine in revenue-sharing format to solve its problems. They have presented a package that would reduce their share of revenues to 54.3 per cent and gradually drop to 52.7 per cent.

The NHL generated a profit of US$3.3 billion last year under the current deal.

Bleak outlook for hockey season

Earlier in the day on Thursday, hockey analysts were not as hopeful that a lockout could be avoided.

Sports Business News’ Howard Bloom said there was “every indication” the NHL season will be delayed until American Thanksgiving -- November 22 -- or even January 1.

“We are absolutely, with 100 per cent certainty, headed towards a lockout on Saturday,” Bloom told CTV’s Canada AM on Thursday. “However, let’s remember something. Training camps don’t begin until next Thursday. But at this point, every indication looks to a delay of the start of the NHL season.”

Bloom said it is likely that the players will have to blink if they want to salvage the season. Team owners appear determined to hold the line at all costs.

“I believe the owners remain 100 per cent united behind Gary Bettman,” Bloom said.

“Bettman has been a tremendous communicator. He took the league successfully through the last lockout. The players blinked eight years ago. The players, unfortunately, are going to have to blink again.”

TSN’s James Duthie also held little hope of salvaging a complete season, telling CTV News Channel on Thursday that a shortened season is still possible, but hope is growing dim.

“Over the last couple of days, this is the first time I’ve actually said there is a possibility that we could lose an entire season,” he said.

“Fans are incredibly frustrated, and they have every reason to be. It is ridiculous to have the prospect of losing even part of a season seven years after we lost an entire season and thought the game was fixed.”