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Lockout over salary cap shuts down NHL

2/16/2005

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.

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.


''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.''