Are darker days ahead or behind the NHL?

Posted: Friday, February 18, 2005

NEW YORK — Day 155 of the NHL lockout was stunningly Day 1 of the offseason.

In becoming the first major sports league in North America to lose an entire season to a labor dispute on Wednesday, the NHL finally got the national attention it's always craved.

But it was for all the wrong reasons.

Now the fear is the fight over a new deal between owners and players will just start over from scratch. Everything offered has been pulled back, any softening of the positions has been lost.

One canceled season could easily become two if cooler heads don't prevail.

''I was expecting to hear there wasn't a season for the past six weeks,'' Rangers forward Bobby Holik said. ''I hope the people in these negotiations realize they're not that far apart. Let's not blame one or the other. The blame is collective, and let's get working on a new day.''

Late Thursday, rumors swirled that maybe there was still a chance to save the season.

''I hear some rumblings ... that owners and players are trying to make an attempt to get back to the bargaining table, but it's got to occur today, tomorrow, or the next day,'' agent Pat Brisson told The Associated Press.

Both sides said there have been no talks since commissioner Gary Bettman and players' association executive director Bob Goodenow traded proposals Tuesday.

''We have heard a lot of the rumors that are out there, but we have had absolutely no contact with the union since Bob's final letter,'' NHL chief legal officer Bill Daly told the AP. ''Unless or until we hear from the union, the rumors are meaningless.''

The Hockey News cited sources that said Wayne Gretzky and Mario Lemieux are trying to work together to get a deal done. Gretzky downplayed the report during a radio interview with the Fan 590 in Toronto.

''To say Mario and I had a conversation to stir up the conversations and talks again, that's just not true,'' Gretzky said.

And it appears that no other scenarios could un-cancel the season, either.

''The players we've spoken to understand the basis upon which Gary canceled the season, and as a result there's no expectation among our membership that there would be any further negotiations,'' NHLPA senior director Ted Saskin told The Associated Press.

There was no progress made through the first five months of the lockout, but breakthroughs were achieved just days before the season was lost.

The dispute has always been about a salary cap, but even after owners and players made concessions in an effort to save the season, it all fell apart over dollar figures.

''We didn't make good history, but we made history another way,'' Dallas forward Bill Guerin, a member of the players' association executive committee, said while making the radio rounds Thursday. ''We have to be the first union to offer a salary cap and get shot down.''

All along, the union swore it would never accept a cap — but that was before the NHL dropped its insistence on having a link between league revenues and player costs.

A wall was knocked down, but it was too late. Once the sides started trading numbers, it became clear they weren't close enough to a deal. Even though the league's cap offer of $42.5 million per team was only $6.5 million less than the players' proposal, it proved to be a gap that couldn't be bridged.

''It's crazy,'' said Islanders general manager Mike Milbury, a union representative during his career. ''Twenty years ago when I played, we didn't have in the dressing room catalogs of 'Christie's Great Estates of the World.' I mean, these are wealthy people, millionaires, and they are losing valuable time.''

Instead of starting a deal to be on NBC and receiving promos during the network's ''Must See TV'' lineup, the NHL now has people saying, ''Did you see what they did to the hockey season?''

The NHL's partnership with NBC will still be there when play resumes. The revenue-sharing deal in which the network is not even paying rights fees is for two years, with the network holding the option for another two.

That won't start until hockey is played.

''We were prepared for any eventuality,'' NBC Sports spokesman Mike McCarley said. ''We have profitable replacement programming in place.''

And that is a big problem the NHL will be forced to face for as long as the league is shut down, and then even more once it is back in operation. Hockey was already a distant forth among the United States' four major sports leagues, and now it could disappear south of the Canadian border, where 24 of the 30 teams are based.

''It's done with, we'll never get the season back. It will probably lower the fan base,'' New York Rangers defenseman Tom Poti said. ''Everybody's going to suffer a lot from this lockout. I don't see it starting in the fall. There's no pressure to get it done.''

For now, many will look ahead to this spring's world championship tournament in Austria. Usually, only players on teams eliminated from the Stanley Cup playoffs had the opportunity to take part — but many stars might be craving a competitive game.

Over 300 of the 700-plus players have spent at least part of the season in European leagues, and that would be an option again in the fall.

Bettman didn't rule out the use of replacement players for next season if a deal with the union can't be worked out. He said the NHL plans to have hockey next season, and all options will be explored by the board of governors when it convenes soon.

Milbury called some of his players Wednesday night and urged them to push the union leadership to make a deal.

''This is not about a bluff,'' Milbury said. ''The best deal has already been offered. The sooner they come to the conclusion that they need to make a deal to move this business forward, the better off we all are.''

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