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The National Hockey League threw away the first two weeks of its season Thursday, so fans who have the Buffalo Sabres’ schedule posted on their fridge or tucked into their wallets can throw out those calendars.
Based on the way things are going, no one should expect a new schedule anytime soon.
The labor stalemate between the NHL and its players’ union reached an inevitable point with the league’s cancellation of all regular-season games through Oct. 24. Ticket holders here will feel the effect four times, with the axing of a quartet of games scheduled for First Niagara Center. Only fans in Anaheim, who are losing five games, will miss more trips to the rink.
“We were extremely disappointed to have to make [Thursday’s] announcement,” NHL Deputy Commissioner Bill Daly said. “The game deserves better, the fans deserve better, and the people who derive income from their connection to the NHL deserve better.”
If the league and the NHL Players’ Association can quickly reach consensus on a collective bargaining agreement to replace the one that expired Sept. 15, a full 82-game season could be salvaged. If not, games and dates from Oct. 25 on will continue to be chopped.
“If there is some kind of common ground, we need to find it ... and not have more games canceled,” Sabres defenseman and active union member Jordan Leopold said by phone.
Optimism is in short supply. The sides can’t agree how to divide revenue of $3.3 billion annually. They were $1 billion apart in their latest proposals regarding how much the players should earn in the next CBA. They haven’t even brought up core financial issues since mid-September and don’t have any negotiations scheduled.
“This is not about ‘winning’ or ‘losing’ a negotiation,” Daly said. “This is about finding a solution that preserves the long-term health and stability of the league and the game.”
Meanwhile, the sides are throwing away millions and denting the wallets of people who depend on games.
By missing four home games and one road contest, Sabres players will lose more than $3.2 million in salary. Losing those home games means Sabres owner Terry Pegula will miss more than $3.9 million in ticket sales.
The cancellations will also impact downtown restaurants and hotels, hundreds of part-time workers at First Niagara Center and scores of parking-lot attendants, ticket scalpers and others whose jobs are tied to the home games.
Pegula has so far said the team won’t lay off any full-time employees, but ushers, ticket-takers and other part-time, game-day employees won’t work if the team doesn’t play.
“We probably won’t have anything until the Bandits start up in January,” except for a few concerts, said John Heidinger, representative for the nearly 100 ticket-takers and ushers who are members of Local 200 of the Service Employees International Union.
The same stay-at-home situation applies to the 700 or so Sportservice employees, most of whom are seasonal and part time and who staff the arena and its concession stands on game nights.
Experts say much of the money spent by local hockey fans will be spent elsewhere in the local economy, but the argument that fans will adjust their spending habits doesn’t help the business operators near the arena who rely on money generated from the games.
“The decision to cancel the first two weeks of the NHL season is the unilateral choice of the NHL owners,” NHLPA Executive Director Donald Fehr said. “For nearly 20 years, the owners have elected to lock out the players in an effort to secure massive concessions.”
This is the third time since 1994 that the NHL will not start as scheduled because of a lockout. In 1994-95, the league didn’t drop the puck until January for a shortened, 48-game schedule. The entire 2004-05 season was lost to a labor dispute.
The schedule cancellation came exactly one week before the league’s first games were to be played. Based on that, the league and union can negotiate until Oct. 18 before more games are lost.
Fans who used credit cards to buy tickets to the Sabres’ canceled home games – Oct. 13 against Pittsburgh, Oct. 16 against Detroit, Oct. 19 against the New York Rangers and Oct. 24 against New Jersey – will have refunds automatically returned to their cards, while the small number of buyers who used cash should visit the box office. Season-ticket holders were mailed refund options last month.

News Staff Reporter Stephen T. Watson contributed to this report. email: jvogl@buffnews.com