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NHL Hopes to Have Hockey Next Season
Thu, Feb 17, 2005
By IRA PODELL
NEW YORK - The NHL canceled its season exactly five months after the lockout started. Now there's no telling when there will be games again.
"We're planning to have hockey next season," NHL commissioner Gary Bettman said Wednesday. That won't be easy.
Last-gasp negotiations got the league and the players' association close to a settlement, but not close enough to prevent the cancellation of the season Wednesday.
The issue that kept the sides apart at the end is the same one that has divided them since this fight started long ago — the inability to resolve differences over a salary cap.
"The guys I've talked to in the last 24 hours were hoping it was canceled, not to see it canceled, but we've missed basically all of our paychecks anyway," Nashville forward Jim McKenzie said. "We've offered too much and gone too far to a group that really hasn't tried to move."
For the first time, a major pro sports league in North America has 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.
To begin with, all momentum gained in the final days of negotiations has been lost — late offers that broke down barriers are now off the table.
"This is a sad, regrettable day that all of us wish could have been avoided," 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.
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.
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.
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.
"If you want to know how I feel, I'll summarize it in one word — terrible," Bettman said.
But he added that the sides would keep working toward an agreement.
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 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.
And now they'll have to start over.
"I think it's a fresh start and everything is off the table," Goodenow said. "It's a totally new environment. That much is for sure."
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. 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 was extended twice after it was originally signed in 1995. That allowed for the NHL to complete its expansion plans without interrupting play.
Bettman has said that teams lost more than $1.8 billion over 10 years — including $273 million in 2002-03 and $224 million last season.
"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.
"I hope they are negotiating," said Wayne Gretzky, now the Phoenix Coyotes' managing partner. "My gut instinct — and I don't have the answer to this — is that this could be put on the shelf for a long time."
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RE: NHL Hopes to Have Hockey Next Season
"NHL Hopes to Have Hockey Next Season"
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