Wednesday, February 16, 2005
Wailing and gnashing of teeth continue
By Scott Burnside
Special to ESPN.com
Oh, there was anger, to be sure.
And frustration and disappointment.
But if there was one common emotion welling up from across the National Hockey League in the wake of Wednesday's historic canceling of the 2004-05 season, it was a feeling of regret, of opportunities lost that can never be reclaimed.
"It's probably the worst day in hockey history," netminder Patrick Lalime said Wednesday evening, hours after the season was wiped from the history books.
Lalime has yet to skate with his new club, the St. Louis Blues, and gone with the season that might have been was Lalime's chance to put behind him past playoff disappointments in Ottawa. Now, Lalime is already looking ahead to trying to find work overseas next fall anticipating the lockout will last into the 2005-06 campaign.
Apart from some charity games in Quebec before Christmas, Lalime has played little.
"I can't go two years without playing," the affable Lalime said. "I was so optimistic after Monday. In my opinion Gary [Bettman, the NHL commisioner] had his mind set; he wasn't going to make any concessions."
In Tampa, Lightning general manager Jay Feaster recalled the thrill of watching the 23,000 fans that jammed into the St. Pete Times Forum for Game 7 of the Finals last June to see the Lightning erase years of mediocrity and worse by winning their first Stanley Cup. And he recalls the 20,000 to 30,000 more who gathered outside to watch the game being shown on the side of a parking structure and Feaster wonders how many of those will come back when the game comes back.
"We opened this market up to a whole new group of people," Feaster said Wednesday evening. "I don't know if you can quantify what the damage will be."
For players, it might have been the chance to prove themselves with new teams or reach personal milestones or simply become an everyday player. For teams it might have been an opportunity to build on last season's successes or to put last year's failures behind them. For those involved in the actual negotiations, the cancellation of the season means months of often frustrating work is for naught.
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"It's been a battle. No question about it," said Trevor Linden, president of the NHLPA.
There is in Trevor Linden's voice more than weariness, there is defeat.
"It's been physically exhausting. Had we played a season I would have been in a tough spot because I felt physically and emotionally drained."
In his fourth term as NHLPA president, Linden said he heard from a number of owners who wanted to play, who felt the players' final offers were the basis for an agreement. He said those owners were frozen out by Bettman and his inner circle of confidants.
"We gave and we gave and we gave and it was never enough," Linden said.
Still, both sides lost, the veteran center acknowledged.
"I think both sides have failed, no doubt about it," he said.
On the day the season was canceled, Calgary fans called to inquire about buying season tickets and some who got refunds on season packages made sure they explained they left a down payment for next season, whenever that might be.
Perhaps they wanted to show their support for a franchise that has been held up as the model franchise by both the league and the players' association, a team that has struggled to keep its top young talent and a team that last season came within a game of winning it all with a modest payroll and a boatload of hard work.
Perhaps those fans simply wanted to be part of the red fever that swept the city during last year's remarkable run to the seventh game of the Stanley Cup Finals.
"Sometimes, it's never like it was the last time. But everyone wants to find out," president and CEO King said.
The former head of both daily newspapers in Calgary said he believed that a deal would get done until the moment Bettman stepped to the microphone.
"Just on the basis of logic," he said.
Logic, whatever King perceived it to be, did not hold. Now another one of his theories is about to be put to the test, his belief that the game can withstand anything.
"I witnessed the game at its highest and best level last spring. And at its highest and best level the game is impervious to anything we can throw at it. I guess we're going to find out."
||Had we played a season I would have been in a tough spot because I felt physically and emotionally drained. ”
||— Trevor Linden, NHLPA president
If the Flames and their fans can only wonder whether they would have had a chance to reprise their role as the Cinderella of the Stanley Cup ball, the Mighty Ducks of Anaheim will never know just how far back they could have bounced after having turned into a pumpkin following a similar storybook ride in 2003.
After a surprise trip to the 2003 final, the Ducks saw a commensurate bump in attendance and sponsorship. Throughout the lockout the challenge has been for the team to hold the line on season ticket holders and sponsors, said general manager Al Coates. That challenge becomes even greater now that the season is canceled.
"I'm an optimistic person and I think what will come out of today is that there is now finality to the season," Coates said. "And now everyone on both sides can reflect and say, how did we get to where we are and how do we move forward? Nobody wins in this."
In Atlanta, Thrashers general manager Don Waddell joked that he can say with certainty his young Thrashers would have gone 28-0 and rolled through the playoffs had an agreement been reached. His humor belies what might have been a glorious chance for this southern franchise, often mentioned by critics of expansion as one of a handful of superfluous franchises, to make its mark.
Having failed to make the playoffs in their first five years of existence, the Thrashers, with super goaltending prospect Kari Lehtonen and dynamic stars Dany Heatley and Ilya Kovalchuk, who sources said would have been with the team even though he signed on earlier for the balance of the Russian elite league season, were poised for their first postseason berth.
Now, Waddell and the Thrashers' management have to worry about keeping a limited fan base interested in the vacuum created by the cancellation of the season.
"We're really going to have to work to keep them," Waddell said.
Another franchise many critics believe has no business being in the NHL but which managed its first playoff experience a year ago, is the Nashville Predators. They, too, will miss out on an opportunity to build on the enthusiasm that marked their first-ever playoff series with the Detroit Red Wings.
"Well it would be an understatement to say that this is possibly the most disappointing day in my hockey career," said general manager David Poile. "I just never thought that we would not get this done."
In Edmonton, general manager Kevin Lowe told reporters that even though it didn't have the element of surprise, he had the same empty feeling Wednesday as he did the day teammate and close friend Wayne Gretzky was traded from the Oilers back in 1988.
Lowe said he remained hopeful to the end.
"My 6-year-old asked me, 'When are the Oilers going to play again?' I said, 'I don't know.' I was hoping that would change this [Wednesday] morning," Lowe said.
||My 6-year-old asked me, 'When are the Oilers going to play again?' I said, 'I don't know.' I was hoping that would change this [Wednesday] morning. ”
||— Kevin Lowe, Edmonton GM
Scott Burnside is a freelance writer based in Atlanta and is a frequent contributor to ESPN.com.