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Tuesday, September 14, 2004
Can NHL hang on in the U.S.?

By Scott Burnside
Special to ESPN.com

TORONTO -- Long after the Finns had departed the ice, replaced by a throng of television cameras and the hopelessly odd looking World Cup of Hockey trophy, three Tampa Lightning teammates gathered for a picture along the boards, delirious Canadian fans waving flags in the background.

Vincent Lecavalier, Brad Richards and Martin St. Louis, sharing in celebration just as they were in Tampa in early June when they led the Lightning to their first Stanley Cup championship.

And then they were gone, one by one, with the rest of their Canadian teammates, the Air Canada Centre empty but for security staff and long coils of television cables.

The symbolism of the Canadians' exit, along with the more abrupt departure of the Finns shortly after Tuesday's 3-2 Canadian victory in the second World Cup of Hockey championship game, was painfully obvious.

This was not just the end of an often intriguing, sometimes perplexing international tournament, but the signaling of the end of something more profound -- the end of hockey as we know it.

Ladies and gentlemen, the game has left the building.

Sometime around 2:30 p.m. ET on Wednesday, NHL commissioner Gary Bettman will announce that the NHL's board of governors have agreed to lock out their players when the current collective bargaining agreement ends at midnight.

That much is certain.

The rest -- from when the two polarized sides may resume negotiations, to when fans can realistically expect to see NHL hockey again, to what exactly the league may look like whenever that happens -- is unknown. It is especially so in exotic places like Atlanta, Nashville and, yes, Tampa Bay, the current home of the Stanley Cup.

"You always worry about the fan. I'm not an idiot," said Richards, who won the Conn Smythe Trophy as MVP of the playoffs. "At the same time, we've got principles we're going to stick by."

As the Stanley Cup finals progressed, thousands of Lightning fans gathered outside the team's arena to watch games being played across the continent in Calgary. In turn, the franchise, once a symbol of the folly of southern expansion, is now seen as a model both financially and artistically.

Where will those fans be in a year, a year and a half if that's how long it takes to bring NHL hockey back to the ice?

"Of course I'm concerned," said St. Louis who was the NHL's leading scorer and most valuable player during the regular season. "It's tough. You don't want to tease them, give them something and then take it away."

The NHL and the players' association have not met since Thursday, when the players presented a proposal, which was a slight modification on a series of concessions first presented last October. The centerpiece of the proposal -- a luxury tax -- was almost instantly dismissed out of hand by Bettman, even though it's clear such a tax would put a drag on the salaries that owners claim are bleeding the league dry. The owners, who claim league-wide losses of $224 million last year and $273 million the year before, are determined to have a salary cap of some kind, (preferably one in the low to mid-$30-million range) that will tie salaries to revenues.

No talks are scheduled for Wednesday, the final day of the agreement, nor anytime soon.

The best guess is that the next serious attempt will be in December, as the drop-dead date for holding a partial season approaches.

"That's the business of hockey," said Lecavalier who was named MVP of this tournament after the Canadian victory.

Does he imagine what the fan base in Tampa might look like in a year or year and a half if there is no hockey?

"Let's not go that far," Lecavalier said. "I believe in the NHLPA. This is a very important contract for the players."

Down the hall at the Air Canada Centre the Finns' bags were all packed, the sting of a close defeat -- in what was widely considered the most important game in the nation's history -- still palpable.

Most of the players are preparing to return to Finland where they will rejoin club teams in their hometowns.

Defenseman Kimmo Timonen will, however, be heading back to Nashville where his children attend school. Named to the tournament all-star team, Timonen will wait out the first few months of the lockout in the Music City. If the season is scuttled, he will return home to play for a club team he and Philadelphia Flyers winger Sami Kapanen own.

"I haven't thought about it at all yet," Timonen said. "The only thing you think about is how we could have won this game."

But the slick defenseman acknowledged this dispute comes at a crucial time for the Nashville Predators. Last spring, after five years of frustration, the Predators broke through with their first playoff berth. Fans that had been slow to embrace the club, rallied around the Preds' playoff push and through an exciting first-round loss to the Detroit Red Wings.

Now? No one, not Bettman, not his alter ego NHLPA boss Bob Goodenow, can say.

"I do worry about it," Timonen said. "I think now we're going in the right direction. We have a lot of young guys. Now, we realize what it takes to make the playoffs. It's too bad if something else happens now.

"My first thought is I hope there is an NHL season."

Finnish defenseman Teppo Numminen has had a unique perspective on the NHL's rush to growth in the United States, having been a member of the Winnipeg Jets when they were moved to Phoenix, a move that came one season after the last labor impasse cost half of the 1994-95 season. Numminen's new home in Dallas has been a blueprint for success in the United States, with a growing grassroots hockey community and a strong, competitive franchise on the ice. But it has not been tested the way it is about to be tested with the coming lockout.

"Yeah, it's not going to be good for anybody," Numminen said. "Especially in those markets like that, it's going to hurt. There's so many other different sports, big sports, people are going to find something else to do."

Back in the Canadian dressing room, Ryan Smyth wandered by, spraying champagne while teammates and family posed with the World Cup trophy. Equipment bags were being packed at a leisurely pace, but packed nonetheless.

The Air Canada Centre, after all, will soon be off-limits to players.

Florida Panthers netminder Roberto Luongo, the cornerstone of a young franchise that could be ready to step into the playoff fray, said he and his teammates did their best to ignore the uncertainty that lies ahead.

"We were so focused on this tournament. We've got plenty of time to worry," he said.

No one knows how long this will take, he said. But he also acknowledged the stoppage will do little to help a team that has struggled to make inroads with the South Florida sporting public and is often cited as a team the league could do without.

"Obviously it's not going to help," Luongo said. "But these are things we can't control. Hopefully, we'll get back and there'll still be some fans there."

Scott Burnside is a freelance writer based in Atlanta and is a frequent contributor to ESPN.com.