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Wednesday, February 16, 2005
Lockout over salary cap shuts down NHL

Associated Press

NEW YORK -- A hockey season on the brink is now a season gone bust.

The NHL canceled what was left of its decimated schedule Wednesday after a round of last-gasp negotiations failed to resolve differences over a salary cap -- the flash-point issue that led to a lockout.

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It's the first time a major pro sports league in North America lost an entire season to a labor dispute. The resulting damage could be immeasurable to hockey, which already has limited appeal in the United States.

''This is a sad, regrettable day that all of us wish could have been avoided,'' NHL commissioner Gary Bettman said.

''Every day that this thing continues we don't think it's good for the game,'' NHLPA executive director Bob Goodenow said in Toronto.

Minnesota Wild GM Doug Risebrough said the organization fully supported the owners during the negotiations and he thought that while the cancellation was regrettable, it had to happen.

''This is no time to blame anybody,'' Risebrough said. ''I love our players' commitment to team, the skill level that they demonstrate on the ice, and the courage they play with. I think that is what's going to pull us out of this.

''Today is the day that we've become partners. Without knowing, they became closer partners today with the decision, because now they need each other to get through this.''

To begin with, all momentum gained in the final days of negotiations has been lost -- late offers that appeared to bring the sides close to a deal are now off the table, and there's no telling when the NHL will get back on the ice.

No Stanley Cup champion will be crowned, the first time that's happened since 1919, when the 2-year-old league called off the finals because of a flu epidemic.

Risebrough said his ''gut feeling'' was that the game would be back next year.

''Now it's important that both sides keep communicating and see that this season is lost, but there's a future that needs to be built,'' he said.

Without an agreement, there can be no June draft. The sport's heralded next big thing, Canadian phenom Sidney Crosby, won't pull on his first NHL sweater anytime soon.

Then there is the parade of aging stars -- Mario Lemieux (39), Mark Messier (44), Steve Yzerman (39) Brett Hull (40), Ron Francis (41), Dave Andreychuk (41) and Chris Chelios (43) -- whose playing days could be ending on someone else's terms.

''This is a tragedy for the players,'' Bettman said. ''Their careers are short and this is money and opportunity they'll never get back,'' Bettman said.

Despite being the NHL's best-known star, there was never a chance that Pittsburgh's Lemieux, the first owner-player in modern American pro sports history, would side with the players.

''A few years ago, I thought the owners were making a lot of money and were hiding some under the table, but then I got on this side and saw the losses this league was accumulating,'' he said Wednesday.

Hockey was already a distant fourth on the popularity scale among the nation's major league sports. The NHL lost the first season of its two-year broadcasting agreement with NBC that was supposed to begin this season, a revenue-sharing deal in which the network is not even paying rights fees.

Taking a year off, or more, will only push the league further off the radar screen.

''The scary part now for hockey is do the fans come back? We're not baseball, we're not the national pastime,'' Nashville forward Jim McKenzie said.

Between shifts of a pickup game at the Denver rink where the Avalanche used to practice, fan Don Cameron called the cancellation ''a shame.''

''When they come back, it's not going to be as easy to pay for a $90 season ticket,'' he said.

Not to mention how difficult it will be for all the ushers, trainers, officials, Zamboni drivers and businesses near arenas that will continue to be affected.

''We profoundly regret the suffering this has caused our fans, our business partners and the thousands of people who depend on our industry for their livelihoods,'' Bettman said.

Darren Pang: A surreal moment
Darren Pang Even when I saw Gary Bettman stand up at the podium, I felt at some point, someone was going to walk in and say, "Hold on Gary, I think we got something."

I remember back in 1988, sitting at home in Ottawa, watching the television coverage of Wayne Gretzky being traded from Edmonton to Los Angeles. I was sitting there, just dumbfounded. That was an emotional Canadian moment, but today was similar. It was just as surreal. It seemed like we were prepared for this. We'd talked about it for months. And yet, as it was being said, I was still thinking, "Naw, they're still going to talk some more."

Players who I talked to today - whether they're on to something, just shocked or just na´ve -- there was a feeling among them early on that a deal could still be made.

So now I'm waiting for the dust to settle. I'll take a look at the developments of the last week, and try to rationally put things together to make sense of all this.
''If you want to know how I feel, I'll summarize it in one word -- terrible,'' he said.

Bettman said the sides would keep working toward an agreement.

''We're planning to have hockey next season,'' he said.

Goodenow stressed that the players had already given a lot of ground. ''Every offer by the players moved in the owners' direction,'' he said.

''Keep one thing perfectly clear,'' Goodenow said. ''The players never asked for more money -- they just asked for a marketplace.''

The league and players' union traded a flurry of proposals and letters Tuesday night, but could never agree on a cap. The players proposed $49 million per team; the owners said $42.5 million. But a series of conditions and fine print in both proposals made the offers further apart than just $6.5 million per team.

''We weren't as close as people were speculating,'' Bettman said.

Before Monday, the idea of a salary cap was a deal-breaker for the players' association but the union gave in and said it would accept one when the NHL dropped its insistence that there be a link between revenues and player costs.

That still wasn't enough to end the lockout that started on Sept. 16 and ultimately wiped out the entire 1,230-game schedule that was to begin in October and run through the Stanley Cup finals in June.

And now, those concessions are off the table.

''By necessity we have to go back to linkage since no one knows what the damage to the sport will be,'' Bettman said.

The NHL's last game came in June, when the Tampa Bay Lightning beat Calgary 2-1 in Game 7 to win the Stanley Cup.

Since then, a lot of stars have moved on, going overseas to play. Jaromir Jagr, Vincent Lecavalier, Teemu Selanne, Joe Thornton and Saku Koivu are among the over 300 of the league's 700-plus players who spent part of this season playing in Europe.

Whenever a deal is reached, there won't be a clear-cut way to determine the draft order. Washington had the No. 1 selection last year and grabbed Russian sensation Alexander Ovechkin. No doubt the lowly Capitals would love to go first again to pick Crosby.

Shortly after Bettman took over as commissioner, a lockout cut the 1994-95 regular season to 48 games, still more than half the schedule.

The NHL began preparing for the possibility of another lockout in 1998 when each team contributed $10 million toward a $300 million war chest. The collective bargaining agreement, which expired on Sept. 15, was extended twice after it was originally signed in 1995. That allowed for the NHL to complete its expansion plans without interrupting play.

''We lived through a decade of a collective bargaining agreement that didn't work,'' Bettman said. ''It doesn't matter whose fault it was.''

A year ago, there were those who said at least one season was sure to be lost and that two was not out of the question. With the former now the reality and the latter a distinct possibility, both sides are regrouping for a longer fight.

''When emotions are high, things are said, things are done,'' Wayne Gretzky, now a managing partner with the Phoenix Coyotes, said on ESPN. ''Ultimately, these players want to play. I know too many of them love the game too much, and I just can't imagine these players not playing in the National Hockey League for two years. To me, I hope that doesn't happen because I don't know how we would recover.''