With no negotiating sessions scheduled before the deadline, it appeared inevitable that the NHL would follow through on its threat to lockout players if no new deal was in place before the current pact expired at midnight on Saturday.
The two sides, who had been meeting in New York this week, contacted each other early on Saturday but with no movement from the league or union there was nothing to spark last-ditch talks.
The main sticking point in the dispute, which threatens a fourth work stoppage in 20 years, lies with the two sides at odds over how to divide $3.3 billion in revenue.
The NHL, which enjoyed record-breaking revenues last season, initially wanted players to cut their share of hockey-related revenue to 43 percent from 57 percent but have amended that to a six-year deal that starts at 49 percent and drops to 47 percent.
The offer from the NHL Players' Association is tied to projected future revenues with players willing to take a smaller slice of the pie as the league grows. The union's offer opens with players getting 54.3 percent of revenues and dipping to 52.7 percent.
With memories of the bitter labor dispute that wiped out the entire 2004-05 season still fresh in their minds, frustrated fans appear resigned that the NHL regular season was unlikely to open as scheduled on Oct. 11. Players were to report to training camps on Sept. 21.
A few fans wearing team jerseys and carrying signs, staged a small protest outside the NHL's New York headquarters but otherwise the deadline approached with ominous silence.
The league was expected to slip quietly into a lockout without any formal announcements from NHL commissioner Gary Bettman or players' union boss Donald Fehr.
While there was no action on the negotiation front, teams remained active signing players in the hours leading up to the lockout.
Following a flurry of signings on Thursday, the Buffalo Sabres inked forward Tyler Ennis, who had 15 goals last season, to a two-year $5.6 million deal while the Nashville Predators signed defense Kevin Klein to a five-year $14.5 million contract.