Lockout won't hurt developing players

Updated: September 12, 2004, 5:02 PM ET
By Graig Woodburn | Special to ESPN.com

ANAHEIM, Calif. -- Football has kicked off, baseball pennant races are intensifying and Donald Trump is back on television firing people.

Yet, despite a world of other entertainment options, hundreds of hockey true believers have jammed themselves into the bleachers at the Mighty Ducks' practice rink for each session of a five-day rookie tournament between the Anaheim Mighty Ducks, Los Angeles Kings, Phoenix Coyotes and San Jose Sharks.

While the rest of the world spins in other directions, inside the rink, the NHL community watches in a state of collective and collaborative denial.

For a few days, everyone pretends it's business as usual. Less than 72 hours after Monday's championship game, the league's collective bargaining agreement with the players' association will expire, leaving the rookie tournament as an impromptu glimpse at what might be.

The coaches and scouts rank players while huddling to compare notes. The "power player" cheerleaders run about. Kings and Ducks fans hoot and holler.

"We're here because this may be the only hockey we see all year," said Ron Young, a local real estate salesman who brought his sons Michael and Robbie to Friday's action. "It's great, the guys are out there trying to prove themselves -- it's exciting."

The atmosphere is vintage NHL. This is the second year of the tournament, featuring both top draft picks and young free agents. The play is heated and highly competitive. But while the sights and sounds and the peach-fuzz young faces signal the start of another NHL season, the spirit of the tournament only seems to remind the hockey community of what will be lost when the doors are locked Wednesday.

"For me, it's still difficult to think there won't be (a season), that's been my problem," Kings coach Andy Murray said. "I'm an optimist that something could be done, but it doesn't look promising right now."

Some of the fans were prepared to accept that loss, at least temporarily.

"It's inevitable, the goose that laid the golden egg is gone," said Jim Gibbons, a Vancouver Canucks season ticket holder who was in town and decided to stop by. "The players have had it very well -- signing $10 million contracts -- and the owners are losing money, they have to solve it."

There are plenty of real smiles and hearty greetings when the coaches, scouts and media folks who work in the NHL get reacquainted after a summer off. But the conversations quickly switch to where things may be heading.

While the rookie games continue on the big rink, behind the scenes Al Coates leans over the balcony rail, lost in thought while watching youth hockey on an adjacent rink. The Mighty Ducks' senior vice president of operations and interim GM has the burdened look of a man who knows that soon a morning will be spent telling employees they may be out of a job.

Phoenix GM Michael Barnett spent the summer rebuilding the Coyotes into a team that could be a new force in the West. But he can only ponder how long it will be before the "look good on paper" Coyotes actually take the ice.

"Our responsibility is to prepare the hockey club for whenever we commence play; at some point we certainly will, hopefully sooner than later," Barnett said. "Make no mistake about it, though; we are 100 percent behind the league's position."

Anaheim prospect Tim Brent has already gone through the rigors of negotiating hassles. Brent was first drafted by the Ducks in the 2002 draft, but his former agent could not come to terms with Anaheim. Consequently, the center went back into this year's draft only to be selected by the Ducks again.

"My initial feelings were anger," he told the Orange County Register. After switching agents and inking a contract, Brent now looks at the bigger picture. "The last thing I wanted was to be known as a greedy kid."

Oh, the irony.

The players most likely to be earning a paycheck during the lockout will be those who have never played in the NHL. The rookies skating in the tournament will be assigned to either an AHL or ECHL team or back to junior hockey.

"We're treating this as we do every year. There's a group of young players in the development stages of their careers, and this is a great opportunity to assess them against their own peers," Barnett said. "We don't feel the potential of a work stoppage changes things because we know every one of these players will be playing this year. It's important that we put them in the right place to develop."

And there is not going to be a whole lot developing in the NHL for a while.

Graig Woodburn covers the NHL for the Press-Enterprise of Riverside, Calif.