Fans share feelings with Daly, Lites

Updated: November 10, 2004, 2:39 PM ET
Associated Press

DALLAS -- Dallas Stars fans finally had a reason to go to the arena Wednesday night. Only it wasn't for the scheduled game against the Chicago Blackhawks.

Instead, about 500 people -- several wearing green and gold jerseys and other Stars gear -- spent about 90 minutes grilling the NHL's top negotiator, Bill Daly, and team president Jim Lites about the lockout that has shut down the league, wiped out the All-Star Game and is threatening to cancel the season.

Their stance was simple -- forget specifics, just get a deal.

The first big cheers came when a woman said, "Both sides declined an arbitrator and I think that's a foolish thing," prompting someone a few sections over to wave a sign that read, "Mediate Damnit." Later, another fan suggested that "Gordie Howe or Billy Graham" be brought in to settle things.

"You are robbing our children of something they really love and respect. There's your urgency," said the fan, Ernie Horn, who works with Stars players and team officials on a program called Score a Goal in the Classroom.

The league is holding firm that it must slash the percentage of revenue going to players, preferably through a salary cap -- something players insist they'll never accept.

The sides last met Sept. 9, six days before the labor stoppage officially began. They have no plans for their next get-together.

With the season's first 22 days already gone and the All-Star Game shelved earlier Wednesday, it was no surprise that the first question was about when the league would pull the plug on this season.

"We have intentionally not set deadlines and we don't intend to," Daly said.

It also wasn't surprising that the second question was about whether the league might employ replacement players. (Not even an option, Daly said.) The surprise was that the question came from a 7-year-old boy.

If the ice had been down, Daly would've been standing on top of the goal the Stars shoot at twice. Fittingly, he faced more than his share of slap shots.

He deflected most pointed challenges by saying, "That's a very fair question." The most heated attack came from a fan who suggested Daly and commissioner Gary Bettman were the problem.

"You haven't really convinced me that you are with the good guys," the fan said. "Your message has been kind of somber and a little bit morose."

Daly's defense was that the NHL has worked hard to develop a working relationship with the NHLPA. He also noted the growth of players' salaries under Bettman.

Another heated topic was that the owners are to blame for creating this problem, both by agreeing to the last contract and by spending wildly under it.

"Nobody is running away from the responsibility that the last (labor deal) didn't work," Daly said. "But we don't have to live with it any more. We get to make a new one."

Lites later added, "We're in the ditch. Now how do we get out of it?"

Daly was very clear that this is the league's only chance and they'll take as long as necessary to get it right.

"We can't do a deal just to do a deal and save the season," he said. "We have no margin for error. All our focus is on doing the right deal."

More than 70 players met with union leaders Tuesday in Toronto to solidify their stance after a handful of players began speaking out about wanting to return.

Daly noted that the players have missed only one full paycheck and a partial one, hinting that the more money they miss, the more they may be willing to cut a deal.

"I believe we will be playing hockey this season," Daly said. "I'll be the most disappointed person in this building if we're not."

While Daly didn't seem concerned about losing fans, Lites was. However, he said that without a change fans would be driven away by already-high ticket prices going up further.

"You're going to be gone anyway if we continue to pay 15, 20, 25 percent increases," he said.

This was Daly's third trip to an NHL market to spread the league's view but his first before an open forum. Lites did a similar town-hall meeting in August and various team officials have spoken to smaller groups.

In hoping to keep the fan base built during their 11 seasons in Dallas, the Stars called every season-ticket account holder to invite them to this event. E-mails were sent to their entire distribution list and the word was spread for more than a week in local media.


Copyright 2004 by The Associated Press

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