NHL owners carried out their threat to lock out players on Wednesday after the two sides were unable to reach a new labour deal.
The move ended any hope the season will open as scheduled on 13 October.
"The very future of our game is a stake and NHL owners are united as never before, determined to do everything humanly
possible to bring hockey's economic system into the 21st century," said NHL commissioner Gary Bettman.
The club owners want a wage cap, concerned that they are spending too much of their income on salaries.
But the players' union has said it will never accept such a proposal.
"We have done everything possible to negotiate a new collective bargaining agreement that would serve the best interest of everyone involved," added Bettman.
NHL Players Association chief Bob Goodenow defended his organisation's stance.
"An honest partnership can never be achieved under the League's 'my way or the highway' approach," said Goodenow.
"Partnerships are built on respect, trust and willingness to compromise. Partnerships are not built through confrontation.
"Nonetheless, Gary and the owners have chosen, through a lock-out, to try to force players to accept a system they know
players would never agree to."
Owners have indicated they are prepared to shut down the financially troubled league for as long as it takes to gain
concessions that will allow them to operate at a profit.
But the players want to maintain a market-based system, vowing they will never accept any form of salary cap.
Free agent forward Teemu Selanne said: "It's a sad situation. Everybody is expecting a long lock-out, which is not good for hockey."
During the last major dispute, the 1994-95 season was halved in length after 103 days were lost.
This stoppage could be as long - and threatens to wipe out the entire season.
That would mean the Stanley Cup final would not take place for the first time since 1919, when the series between Montreal and Seattle was stopped after five games due a Spanish influenza epidemic.
Many of the NHL's European players have lined up, or are attempting to find, places on teams back across the Atlantic.
The NHL's minor league, the AHL, is unaffected by the threat of the labour dispute esclating.